If Palisades Nuclear Power Plant shuts down next year, where will the nuclear waste go? The short answer is probably nowhere.
Jody Flynn has spent her summers at a cottage in Covert for the past 30 years. It’s in Palisades Park - about a five minute drive from the nuclear power plant. That’s about as close as anyone lives to Palisades. Flynn says leaving nuclear waste near Lake Michigan seems risky:
“The fact that the soil - I mean it’s on a sandy soil is a really scary thing. I mean I’ve watched cottages go into the lake. I mean it is clearly…the dune is a moving, living thing. The fact that they’re storing nuclear waste basically on dunes seems irresponsible to me."
But that’s likely where it will stay - because there’s no federal site to store the waste from Palisades or any other nuclear plant for that matter. Not since the Yucca Mountain project was put on hold.
One Big Nuclear Waste Site
Yucca Mountain - about a hundred miles south of Las Vegas - was supposed to be the answer to the nuclear industry’s problems. It doesn’t get a lot of rain, so it would take longer for the facility to break down and for the waste to leak out. But the State of Nevada didn’t want it and in 2010, President Obama’s administration scrapped the project.
Michigan Congressman Fred Upton is one of the legislators trying to revive Yucca Mountain. He says we’ve put off dealing with the problem of high-level radioactive waste for too long. There are about a hundred nuclear reactors operating in the U.S. today - and when they shut down, Upton says that waste will have to go somewhere.
“Let’s face it, nobody really wants it but it’s better to have one safe place than a hundred different scattered places around the country,” he says.
Is Yucca Mountain Safe?
Would Yucca Mountain be the safest place? Victor Gilinsky thinks not. He served on the very first Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 1970s and was a consult on the State of Nevada’s case against Yucca Mountain.
Gilinsky says the site wasn’t as waterproof as the Department of Energy thought.
“It’s out in the desert which makes you think it’s real dry. But they underestimated the amount of water in the mountain by something like a factor of 10,” he says.
That means that it will take a lot less time for the radioactive waste to reach the environment. So the DOE created a kind of titanium leak guard for each package of waste - to be put in after Yucca Mountain is full.
Gilinsky says that could be a hundred years after it opens. By that time, he says the government would have to dig through rubble to get to the waste and fit them with leak guards.
“By robots that have not been designed. I mean the whole thing is just…you know it’s kind of like believing in the tooth fairy,” says Gilinsky.
Gilinsky says that’s if the project hasn’t been forgotten completely.
With the leak guards included, the NRC staff gave Yucca Mountain a positive safety review in 2015. But as of now the agency itself hasn’t endorsed the site.
Smaller, Temporary Waste Dumps
In the meantime, the Department of Energy has toyed with the idea of creating temporary storage sites. Somewhere for the nuclear waste to go while the DOE searches for something more permanent.
Without something like Yucca Mountain, Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear worries that these dumps won’t be temporary at all:
“The current top target in the country is Andrews County in Texas which is 40 percent Latin American, a high percentage of low-income residents. So it’s a real environmental justice issue. And it could just get stuck there on the surface and this material can’t stay on the surface forever. If it ever gets out into the environment - and erosion, weatherization would do that over time - then it would be a radiological disaster.”
Moving nuclear waste across the country to these dumps could be risky too - which is why Kamps says he’s not in favor of places like Yucca Mountain either.
Frank Rusco is the director of the natural resources and energy group for the Government Accountability Office - which audits other federal agencies. He wrote a report on these interim nuclear waste sites four years ago. Rusco says any temporary site would still have to store the fuel for decades.
“Whether or not we continued or restarted the Yucca Mountain project and finished that - or we find a new permanent repository somewhere - it’s going to take many many years before that repository can start accepting fuel,” he says.
That’s if the U.S. can even afford to build one.
No Yucca Mountain, No Nuclear Storage Fee
Since the 1980s, the Department of Energy had been charging electric customers a small fee to pay for nuclear storage. As of 2014, there was about $40 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund. But when the Yucca Mountain project got scrapped, Rusco says so did the fee to pay for it.
“The fund now is no longer collecting money and so there is a concern that there won’t be enough money to actually build a permanent repository and/or an interim repository,” he says.
That’s why - until the government can figure out what to do with nuclear waste - the spent fuel at Palisades is likely staying right where it is.