Congress needs to start over on nuclear waste

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Photo by D Ramey Logan via Creative Commons
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Photo by D Ramey Logan via Creative Commons

Guest Commentary | June 23, 2019

By Geoffrey Fettus, Special to CALmatters

Marooned along the Pacific Ocean are thousands of tons of radioactive waste, awaiting a resting place that would take it far from the threat of tsunami, and far from millions of Californians.

We need a solution for the waste stuck at San Onofre and the other California reactors. But in their desperation to move the threat away from the Golden State, some California lawmakers are making two grave errors.

First, they continue to push a long-doomed final storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That location is scientifically and legally unsound and destined never to pass legal muster or gain acceptance from Nevadans.

Second, while Yucca sputters, some people have decided that an “interim” storage site could be an answer. That approach was discussed – and criticized – at a House panel field hearing in Laguna Niguel this month to discuss options for moving this waste.

These proposals are distractions, ones that will leave our nation stumbling about while ignoring what could be a permanent answer.

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New Estimate ($377B) Raises Cost of Cold War Cleanup (Again)

EM site map GAO 2019
Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management (EM) Sites Where Cleanup Remains

At some point, DOE will have to admit that it has no idea what it will cost to cleanup the Cold War nuclear weapons complex sites. DOE should stop making more wastes until the existing wastes are remediated. The new estimate is more that twice the amount that has been spent in total since cleanup began in 1989, with the most difficult sites still to come.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – Clean Up, Don’t Build Up!

The thing is that the new $377 billion estimate includes leaving much of the waste behind.

Program-Wide Strategy and Better Reporting Needed to Address Growing Environmental Cleanup Liability GAO-19-28: Published: Jan 29, 2019. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 2019.

The Department of Energy is tasked with cleaning up waste from Cold War nuclear weapons production, much of which is hazardous or radioactive. The department’s Office of Environmental Management estimates that future work could cost at least $377 billion—$109 billion more than last year’s estimate.

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Principles for Safe Management and Geological Isolation of Irradiated Nuclear Fuel

Summary: The environmental risks posed by irradiated fuel are extreme: As observed by the U.S. Court of Appeals, it has “the capacity to outlast human civilization as we know it and the potential to devastate public health and the environment.” Nuclear Energy Inst., Inc. v. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 373 F.3d 1251 (D.C. Cir. 2004).If irradiated fuel is dispersed into the environment, its radionuclides are sufficiently toxic to cause irreparable contamination of large areas of land and entire river and lake systems and coastal ecosystems.

The risk of nuclear weapons proliferation posed by irradiated fuel is also significant. Each metric ton of spent fuel typically contains more than one Nagasaki-bomb equivalent of plutonium and, as of 2016, well over 70,000 metric tons had already be been created in the United States by the commercial nuclear power reactors. Spent fuel, storage and/or disposal may pose a risk of theft if it is stored or disposed of in a manner that would allow access in a few hundred years when the fission product radiation barrier would have declined to low levels.

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