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At the dawn of the nuclear age a scant
five decades ago, giddy futurists predicted an energy
source so inexpensive it would be "too cheap to
meter." Today, as the twilight of the U.S. atomic
power program approaches, critics predict a financial and
ecological nightmare if
Congress goes along with an industry sponsored bill
designed to dispose of the growing heap of radioactive
waste from aging reactors.
Dubbed the "Mobile Chernobyl Bill" by
anti-nuclear activists, the
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Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1996, if passed, would
authorize thousands of yearly shipments of highly
radioactive material to travel the nation's rail and
highway system bound for a temporary storage site in
Nevada. This worries Michael Mariott, executive director
of Washington DC's Nuclear Information and Resource
Service (NIRS). He and other critics fear the
consequences of inevitable accidents and even possible
Marriott charges the utility industry with pressing
for what amounts to a massive corporate bail-out bill at
public expense to solve a problem they can't. He says the
main purpose of the bill is to create what he calls,
"a big liability shift." "The utilities
want the waste they produced as a commercial enterprise
off of their property so they're not responsible for
accidents or environmental damage," he contends.
"As soon as this dangerous cargo leaves the plant
gates, the liability is on the taxpayer."
Without a safe, publicly acceptable, permanent
repository, high-level waste is building up daily at the
109 U.S. atomic energy facilities. As nuclear power
plants such as Michigan's Fermi 2 in Monroe, Big Rock
Point in Charlevoix, and Palisades near Benton Harbor
generate electricity from their huge steam turbines,
spent highly radioactive waste is created as a
by-product. This comes from its energy source, uranium,
which is processed into fuel rods and loaded into reactor
cores where they undergo a nuclear fission reaction.
After several years of service, the rods must be
replaced, but when removed, their radioactivity has
increased almost a million times. The stored irradiated
fuel is the most intensely radioactive material on the
planet and emits lethal doses of radiation if left
unshielded. The plutonium-239, part of the irradiated
fuel stored in Michigan, has a half-life of 24,400 years.
It remains dangerous for a quarter million years or
The spent fuel rods are stored either in cooling pools at
the plant or, as on-site space fills up, in so-called dry
casks nearby. At the Palisades plant, old fuel is in 13
100-ton concrete vessels located 150 yards from the Lake
Michigan shoreline. Anti-nuclear activists have long
questioned the safety of this procedure particularly
given the sensitivity of the Palisades location. However,
Consumer Power Co., the owner-operator of Palisades,
insists the casks are safe even though the state recently
brought suit against the utility company protesting
storage so close to the lake. The nuclear power industry
is hanging its hat on this current bill which was
approved by the Senate in July with bi-partisan support
and has cross-party sponsorship for its House version, HR
1020. Although it has the names of prominent liberal
representatives such as John Conyers (D-Det.) and Lynn
Rivers (D-Ann Arbor) attached to it, President Clinton
opposes the bill and has threatened a veto.
If enacted, the legislation would permit shipping the
nation's high-level nuclear waste by truck and rail
across 43 states in 18-foot insulated, steel casks to a
temporary site in Yucca Mountain, Nev to what critics say
is no more than a fenced parking lot until a permanent
repository is approved.
The NIRS' Mariott says the bill has its origins in a
state suit filed by Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly
against Palisades' use of dry casks. This pushed the
utilities to become concerned about getting the waste out
of the state quickly. Introduced by Rep. Fred Upton
(R-Kalamazoo) in whose district Palisades lies, the HR
1020 bill was written by industry representatives who
have lobbied extensively for it in Congress. Bipartisan
support came, according to Mariott, through Attorney
General Kelly, who brought in the Democrats.
"Michigan led the way," Mariott complains,
"in the Not In My Back Yard spirit."
The bill contains no provisions for costs, but industry
spokespeople say they already have been paid by
individual state ratepayers whose utility bills in part
reflect a contribution to the national Nuclear Waste Fund
which was established to pay for a permanent disposal
site. Money in the Fund goes to the federal government
which in turn allocates it through Congress for the cost
of permanent storage.
The problem, says Marriott, is that the priorities of the
Fund would be altered by building and maintaining a
temporary storage facility designated under the current
bill. He charges that even though there is $11 billion
dollars currently in the fund, there will soon be a
shortfall because the money is being spent on a
"temporary quick fix." The situation is
aggravated by the difficulty in finding a host community
which will agree to be the site for temporary storage.
Between 1991 and 1994, more than 30 communities defeated
local proposals to accept nuclear waste, and the
government is no closer to finding a permanent site then
they were in 1972 when the search began.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act is also being criticized for
ignoring local wishes. The bill's provisions call for
overriding Nevada state law prohibiting importation of
nuclear waste and treaty rights claimed by the Western
Shoshone tribe on whose land the Yucca Mountain site
rests. Mary Olsen, a nuclear waste specialist with NIRS,
worries about the 16,000 shipments a year which would be
needed under the pending legislation. "This isn't a
little problem; this is a big problem we're faced
with," she says.
The shipping casks weigh 25 tons for trucks and up to 125
tons for rail transport. Olsen says statistically we know
accidents will occur and could lead to lethal exposures
creating increases in cancer, birth defects and immune
system suppression. The American Petroleum Institute
calculates six accidents for every million miles traveled
by a heavy truck and with thousands of shipments expected
yearly under the bill, at least 15 mishaps annually could
occur. The containers are built to withstand 30 mph
impacts, but Olsen points out that trucks and trains
travel considerably faster.
Because U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) regulations
require shipments use the best maintained roads and rail
lines, routes will go through major cities, Olsen says.
"51 million people who live within two miles of the
shipping routes are exposed to a real risk of
accident." "Unless we build a whole new rail
and highway infrastructure," she says, "we're
stuck using the ones which go straight through Detroit,
Chicago and St. Louis."
But even under the best case scenario, Olsen sees
dangers. Radiation will be emitted through the
transportation cask containers and to stop it, she
explains, a lead shield would have to be constructed that
would make the truck so heavy it couldn't move. "If
you were next to one, say stuck in traffic, it would be
comparable to receiving one x-ray an hour for an adult,
so you don't need an accident to increase the radiation
exposure people will receive." Waste shipment truck
drivers would receive the heaviest exposure. A Detroit
Edison spokesman says risks are minimal for both
transportation and storage.
Olsen says, "The nuclear industry wants to take the
same casks which are a problem here and move them
somewhere else. There is no net change in the method of
storing the waste, just who has the liability."
She admits neither she nor anyone else has an adequate
solution to the problem of long term storage, but says a
start would be the immediate closing of all existing
Only about one third of the waste the DoE anticipates
storing at Yucca Mountain has already been generated; the
rest will be from future nuclear operation. "Whether
the plants are open or closed is crucial," Olsen
says. "We have the ability to prevent two-thirds of
The NIRS is calling for an independent review since
there's never been a study by someone not connected to
those with a vested interest in the situation.
"We can't trust the utilities and Congress to solve
the problem," she says.
NIRS can be reached at 1424 H St., NW, Washington DC
20036; call 202-328-0002
Activists from NIRS and the Shundahai Network visited
Detroit August 19 as part of their "Don't Waste
America" tour. The groups stopped at Detroit Edison
headquarters, the operator of Fermi 2, on their way to
the Democratic Convention. to urge defeat of the bill.
To emphasize their point, their van, home for seven
activists, it tows a 20-foot long, 12 foot-high,
fiber-glass, dumbbell-shaped, mock, nuclear waste cask.
Mateo Ferreira, who performs in guerrilla theater at road
stops, explains "shundahai" means peace in the
language of the Western Shoshone native people.
"We want to give people a wake up call of what is
going to be going through their communities if this
scheme is passed," he says.
(Neat paragraph that would like a home.)
Adding to the difficulties the government and the
nuclear industry face is the fact that the term
"disposal" does not apply to materials which
will remain hazardous virtually forever. For instance,
the English Channel did not exist five thousand years ago
and within the last 10,000 years, a volcano erupted near
Yucca Moutain. Geologists say there is no hole in the
earth filled with high-level waste which can be predicted
will remain isolated and undisturbed for a millenium.
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