Why we shouldn’t be talking about nuclear waste “disposal”
By Linda Pentz Gunter
(Note: Please join a webinar on nuclear waste hosted by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Washington, DC, and moderated by Beyond Nuclear, to discuss the World Nuclear Waste Report with its editor, Arne Jungjohann, and US chapter author and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair, Allison Macfarlane, on December 3 from 1pm-2:30pm Eastern US time. Click here to register.)
Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat. You don’t “dispose” of nuclear waste.
The ill-suited, now canceled, but never quite dead radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain was not a “disposal” site.
The radioactive mud being dredged from the sea bed at the Hinkley C nuclear site in the UK, is not going to get “disposed of” in Cardiff Grounds (a mile off the Welsh coast).
When Germany dumped radioactive waste in drums into the salt mines of Asse, it wasn’t “disposed” of.
Taking nuclear waste to Texas and New Mexico border towns and parking it there indefinitely is not “disposal”.
To talk about radioactive waste “disposal” is simply dishonest. It’s disingenuous at best and deliberately misleading at worst.
In Cardiff Bay, that radioactive waste will get “dispersed.” At Asse, the waste leaked out of the barrels and “dispersed” into water that has flooded the site.
At Yucca Mountain, were it to get a renewed green light, water will eventually carry off those radioactive particles, sending them into groundwater and drinking water downstream of the dump.
“Once you have made radioactive waste, then you are looking at long-term isolation, not disposal,” says Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear. “And its cost. And if you are looking to manage the liability of cost, then don’t make it.”
That’s the easiest kind of radioactive waste to “dispose” of. The kind you haven’t made. Because, as Gunter says, “there is no alchemy for radioactive detritus.” Once we’ve made it, it’s with us pretty much forever.
Federal agencies and nuclear corporations continue to wrestle over what to do with the already tens of thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste (at least 90,000 at last count) generated by America’s commercial nuclear power plants — all casked up with nowhere to go (and a lot of it still in the fuel pools). Because, absent alchemy, that waste is always going to be somewhere, even if we can’t see it.
Once upon a time, the general public understood this. In 1986, when the US Department of Energy was looking for a geological burial site for commercial nuclear waste, it began giving serious consideration to the “granite state” of New Hampshire.
New Hampshire towns — some of which would have been seized and razed by eminent domain to make way for the repository — rose up in opposition. A stunning 100 of them signed a resolution that not only opposed the burial, storage, and transportation of high-level nuclear waste in New Hampshire, but also its production.
A law was eventually passed in New Hampshire that forbade siting a nuclear waste repository in the state, but not banning its generation. The construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant on the New Hampshire coast progressed, and today the single unit of the two originally planned is duly generating radioactive waste for the state of New Hampshire, with still no place to go.
In fact, the law banning a repository in New Hampshire was quietly, almost covertly, overturned in the New Hampshire state legislature in 2011, a fact uncovered by State Rep. Renny Cushing while writing legislation in 2016. (Cushing is a founder of this country’s first anti-nuclear power group, the Clamshell Alliance, which vigorously opposed the construction of Seabrook.)
In a characteristically stealthy way, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ensured there will be no repeat of that New Hampshire defiance. Today, under what was once called the Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision, but is now termed the “Continued Storage of High-Level Waste”, (presumably because no one dare claim any “confidence” about finding a waste solution), an intervention against a reactor license renewal can be disallowed if it is based on contentions challenging the absence of a long-term radioactive waste solution.
This means that our aging fleet of nuclear reactors are free to generate yet more radioactive waste, some of them for another 20 or even 40 years, even though there is still no sign of land when it comes to finding a safe, long-term management plan for what to do with it.
That’s remarkable hubris this far into the nuclear game. Even if one could (very reluctantly) forgive the initial optimistic procrastination — when Fermi achieved the first chain reaction in 1942, but everyone decided the waste problem would be solved later — there is no forgiving it now, 78 years on. That’s more than ample time to have realized that continuing to make more of a lethal substance that you can never dispose of is scientifically and morally reprehensible.
We cannot dispose of radioactive waste. But we can dispose of nuclear power. We should hesitate no longer and do just that.
Headline photo by By Thomas Bethge for Shutterstock.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and edits Beyond Nuclear International.