An aerial view of the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Plant in Wiscasset as it appeared during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Yankee

A new proposal by President Donald Trump’s administration to reclassify some high-level nuclear waste to reduce cleanup costs will not affect the 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored in more than 60 airtight steel canisters near the former Maine Yankee nuclear reactor in Wiscasset.

The new proposal focuses on waste generated by nuclear weapons, not power plants. But Mainers tasked with advocating for safe handling of atomic waste voiced concern that it could foretell changes that would affect the Maine Yankee waste.

“Safety costs money; environmental protection costs money,” said Edgecomb resident Ray Shadis, technical adviser to the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution in Brattleboro, Vermont, and founder of the group Maine’s Friends of the Coast that eventually got Maine Yankee shut down. “I think that’s the next shoe. This initiative at the weapons’ facilities is very likely the first step.”

The U.S. Department of Energy has proposed reclassifying some high-level radioactive waste in various U.S. locations to low-level, allowing the department to leave the waste buried in the ground and save $40 billion in cleanup costs, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Per the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Nuclear Waste Policy of 1982, high-level radioactive waste is currently defined as waste resulting from processing irradiated nuclear fuel that is highly radioactive.

Shadis said the proposal would not affect waste at the former Maine Yankee plant, which closed in 1996. Trump’s current proposal would only affect high-level radioactive waste generated by nuclear weapons production — currently stored in South Carolina, Idaho, Washington and New York — not waste generated by civilian nuclear production.

“The terms ‘highly radioactive’ and ‘sufficient concentrations’ are not defined in the [Atomic Energy Act] or the [Nuclear Waste Policy Act],” the proposal states. It goes on to argue that “Congress left it to [Department of Energy] to determine when these standards are met. Given Congress’ intent that not all reprocessing waste is [high-level waste], it is appropriate for DOE to use its expertise to interpret the definition of [high-level waste], consistent with proper statutory construction, to distinguish waste that is non-HLW from waste that is HLW.”

According to Shadis, industry officials and regulators have insisted since the beginning of the nuclear age that civilian nuclear production and weapons production for defense have nothing to do with each other. They are not integrated in any way and are handled separately.

In fact, waste generated by civilian nuclear reactors is regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Eric Howes, spokesman for Maine Yankee, said Tuesday he is not aware of any proposals to reclassify waste stored at Maine Yankee.

Nevertheless, Shadis said, “I will say that we could simply wait for the other shoe to drop, because the Trump administration has rushed to the rescue of commercial power plants, which are shutting down all over the country because they are no longer competitive … it’s one way of fixing the game. One way of adjusting the cost of nuclear is to be more lenient when it comes to environmental regulations, including regulations regarding nuclear waste.”

“That’s completely outrageous,” Don Hudson, chairman of the Maine Yankee Community Advisory Panel, said of the proposal. “They couldn’t have done that with a straight face. But it doesn’t affect Maine Yankee’s waste.”

A federal judge has already awarded Maine Yankee $24.6 million in a decision based on the federal government’s failure to remove and dispose of the spent nuclear fuel.

But Hudson said again on Tuesday there is no viable solution for the waste in Wiscasset, although “there are a couple of potential projects that might get built sometime in the next decade for above-ground storage near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and west Texas.”

Previous administrations have said “stranded” nuclear waste — hazardous materials stored where there is no operating nuclear plant such as Maine Yankee, Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts and several others — would be the first to be removed, according to Hudson. But he said he isn’t holding his breath.

“The impasse on the nuclear waste issue continues,” Howes said. “Congress to date has not provided any funding in the fiscal year 2019 budget for consolidated interim storage or the Yucca Mountain license application process. Maine Yankee and many others are urging Congress to provide fiscal year 2019 funding for nuclear waste management during this lame duck session of Congress.”

“I hate to sound cynical, but I’m not going to believe it’s going to happen until I actually hear there’s a bulldozer on the ground,” Hudson said. “It’s really dangerous stuff, and it needs to be taken care of … depending on who you ask, it’s going to be multi tens of thousands of years before you could assign just casual care of this waste.”