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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Millstone nuke wants to increase on-site nuclear waste storage by 710%

Directly west and upwind of Charlestown, 20 miles away
By Will Collette

Virginia-based Dominion Resources is a major player in electricity generation in New England. They own the Millstone nuclear power plant outside of New London just 20 miles west of Charlestown. They also own the nasty coal-fired Brayton Point plant just over the Rhode Island line in Somerset, MA.

Dominion is petitioning for permission to dramatically increase the amount of nuclear waste it stores on site. They currently store some spent nuclear rods in pools, but also have 19 casks of “dry-storage” waste as well. They are asking for approval to increase the number of dry casks to 135. While it is much safer to store waste in armored casks, compared to pools, this plan means long-term, on-site storage.

Since the launch of the commercial nuclear energy industry – still one of the most heavily government-subsidized energy sources even after more than 50 years of operation – critics have pointed out the daunting issue of nuclear waste disposal. 

In its early years, industry supporters answered optimistically, saying that by the time the waste started to accumulate, science and the government would figure out a safe way to handle the waste.
Millstone's current waste storage site

Fifty years later and we’re still waiting.

Spent fuel from nuclear power plants remains a severe public health and safety risk for tens of thousands of years.

Right now, most nuclear power plant operators store their spent fuel rods, some with radioactivity levels as high as 96% of their original strength, in water-filled pools. These pools provide somewhat safe, temporary storage, but if those pools are compromised by attack or by accident – as the ones at the Fukashima reactors in Japan were by the earthquake and tsunami, and water level drops, they can catch fire, creating catastrophic results.

In 1997, The Brookhaven National Laboratory issued a study on what could happen if there was a pool fire at the Millstone power plant. They concluded that such a fire would kill 100 people instantly and another 138,000 people over time. 2,170 square miles of land could be contaminated. That would, of course, include Charlestown just 20 miles to the east.

In 2002, former top Energy Department official Robert Alvarez wrote a report, "What About The Spent Fuel?" Alvarez speculated about the results of a nuclear waste pool fire at Millstone, noting that “On average, spent fuel ponds hold five to 10 times more long-lived radioactivity than a reactor core.” 

He estimated heightened radiation levels would render 29,000 square miles uninhabitable. That would include just about all of Connecticut all the way to New York City, Rhode Island and much of eastern Massachusetts. The economic impact would be incalculable. When Alvarez wrote that report ten years ago, Millstone had 585 rods stored on-site in pools.

Cask storage of nuclear waste
Clearly, dry cask storage has many health and safety advantages over storage in pools. Storing the rods in armored concrete and steel containers 17 feet high provides more security. But plant operators are reluctant to switch to dry casks, largely because of the costs of between $1 and $1.5 million per cask.

Any plan to store the waste requires planners to theorize how land masses might shift over very long periods and to come up with a way of warning humans (or whatever other sentient beings might replace humans in the future) not to touch this deadly material. Of course, the first challenge is figuring out how to engineer storage containers that will stay intact over millennia.

Dominion is submitting its application to the Connecticut Siting Council. The Council is expected to make its decision 30 to 60 days after it holds a public hearing.

Since Dominion has filled eighteen of its 19 existing casks – and has partially filled that last, 19th one – there is some urgency to Dominion’s request. Why they waited until the issue became so “ripe,” could be a strategic move by Dominion, given that it was only a year ago, August 2011, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sited Dominion for two safety violations at Millstone.

There are pros and cons in the debate over every form of energy we generate to power our culture. We all know the arguments over fossil fuels. And nuclear energy. It has been fascinating to see issues of cost, the need for subsidies and safety being applied to alternative energy projects – as if somehow the issues of cost, subsidies and safety don’t apply to conventional energy sources.

Some Charlestown residents seem more concerned about “shadow flicker” and the chance a wind turbine might disturb their rustic repose than what’s just 20 miles down I-95.

Despite Charlestown’s claim of noble environmental credentials, it seems that we are being left in the dust when it comes to alternative energy. We care about our land and water, woods and woodland creatures as we should, but there is more to being an environmentalist than caring about open space.

Like knowing which way the wind blows, and wondering what those winds might carry.