Alongside rivers and lakes, on ocean shores and tidal bays, nearly 63,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste - which remains dangerous for longer than recorded history - sits in "temporary" storage. In some cases, it's been there for decades. And it's almost certain to remain for decades longer, scattered around 33 states.
Some of that waste is squeezed into small pools housed inside flimsy buildings; some sits outside in storage containers never intended to be permanent. In both instances, the spent fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants is exceedingly vulnerable to accidents and terrorist attacks.
Like so many of society's waste problems, out-of-sight, out-of-mind has become a de facto "solution" -- except to the thousands of Americans who live near these high-level waste storage sites. I am one of them. I reside near two spent fuel pools, one in Massachusetts, at the now-shuttered Yankee Rowe reactor, and another at the troubled Vermont Yankee reactor, only 16 miles away. Together, these pools hold more than 90 million curies of radioactivity. (The bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki released 1 million curies of radiation.)
Recently, President Obama canceled the ill-conceived and costly Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste disposal project. After 35 years, the deep geological repository in Nevada - chosen on the basis of politics, not science - was finally declared unsuitable. A special blue-ribbon commission has been created to find an alternative. Nobody is even hinting that an answer might come anytime soon.
This spring, America reaches an alarming milestone: enough waste will exist to completely fill Yucca Mountain. We are now about to start filling a second repository - if one existed.
So what should this nation be doing with its spent fuel that - like it or not - is going to stay put for the foreseeable future?
Instead of ignoring the problem, or choosing expedient "solutions," we need to face it realistically. For that reason, more than 170 national and grassroots organizations, including the Citizens Awareness Network, are supporting the "Principles for Safeguarding Nuclear Waste at Reactors."
These principles are based on the urgent need to protect the public from threats posed by vulnerable storage of spent fuel. While others are using the shortage of disposal options as an opportunity to promote reprocessing this fuel, this is not a solution. Reprocessing is expensive, causes pollution and poses nuclear-weapons proliferation risks.
Rather, the best choice is to improve existing on-site storage until a safe permanent solution can be achieved. In no way should our support of these principles be construed as support of nuclear power or the creation of more radioactive waste. What these principles do represent, however, is a realistic framework for dealing with a problem that threatens all Americans, wherever they may live.
Briefly, this is what we recommend:
...Require a low-density, open-frame layout for fuel pools. Fuel pools originally were designed for temporary storage of a limited number of spent fuel assemblies. Today, waste in many pools is almost as densely packed as the fuel assemblies inside an operating reactor core. Loss of cooling water from an accident or attack could produce a fire and release large quantities of radiation. Returning to the low-density, open-frame design of these pools would reduce the risk of a disastrous radiation release.
...Establish hardened on-site storage. Waste removed from fuel pools must be safeguarded in hardened, on-site storage facilities. The waste must be retrievable and carefully monitored. The overall objective is to make the waste so secure that it's unattractive as a terrorist target. This can be achieved in two ways: making the containers resistant to severe attacks (such as with a large aircraft) and by placing the canisters in areas that make detection difficult.
...Increase protection of fuel pools to make them capable of withstanding an attack equal to the force and coordination of the 9/11 attacks.
...Periodic review of each storage facility, including fuel pools and hardened on-site facilities.
...Fund local and state governments to independently monitor these sites.
A landscape littered with deadly fuel cores is the legacy we must confront. What we propose will give this nation the opportunity to find a safe and responsible permanent solution. Even though the storage modifications we recommend are "temporary," they will give us time - and security - while we find the right answers.
- Deb Katz is executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network.