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Nuclear waste doesn’t belong in Wiscasset. Or in more than 100 other American communities. Yet these communities are storing tons of nuclear waste because the federal government has failed to develop a disposal site.
It is also costing U.S. taxpayers $2 million a day to store this waste. And that waste poses an increasing threat to Maine residents far beyond the coastal town of Wiscasset, as climate change is leading to rising sea levels and increased potential for flooding.
In Wiscasset, home to the long-defunct Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, 1,400 spent nuclear fuel rods are stored in 60 cement and steel canisters, watched by armed guards. Four canisters of irradiated steel that were removed from the nuclear reactor when it was taken down are also stored behind chain link fences at the 11-acre site a few miles from downtown.
The storage was meant to be temporary, but the waste has been in Wiscasset for 16 years because there is nowhere else for it to go.
Unfortunately, Congress and the Biden administration — like those before them — don’t appear to be in any hurry to solve this problem.
“What worries me is that there really isn’t any national leadership right now on this stuff. There isn’t an agency that has a mission and has developed a strategy, that has goals and is willing to act on it,” Don Hudson, the chairman of the Maine Yankee Community Advisory Panel, told the BDN.
That must change.
Sen. Susan Collins helped secure $15 million in federal funding to help towns with decommissioned nuclear plants across the country pursue economic development projects. She has also introduced a bill, with Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, that would create a grant program to accelerate job creation in these towns.
Sen. Angus King, who backs the legislation along with Rep. Chellie Pingree, has urged U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to take action to find a permanent storage site.
“I support the creation of a permanent disposal site for spent nuclear fuel in order to assist communities like Wiscasset that are unfairly burdened with storage,” Collins said in a statement to the BDN. “In the most recent government funding bill, I supported a provision directing the secretary of energy to consolidate the storage of spent nuclear fuel.”
While bills like those from Collins are pending in Congress, the Biden administration is seeking communities to voluntarily become a storage site, an effort that has not been successful in the past.
Instead, private companies are pursuing licenses from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to serve as temporary consolidated storage facilities. This is an improvement over having the waste spread across the country, but it is not a long-term solution.
Between 1959 and 2016, there were a total of 119 plants in operation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Fifty-five remain in operation today.
Maine Yankee, which was Maine’s largest source of electricity, closed in 1995 after cracks were found in the plant’s steam generator tubes. It was decommissioned in 2005, with the waste put into storage casks.
In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the U.S. Department of Energy to create a permanent underground facility for nuclear waste disposal. In 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was named the sole site for such a repository. The government was supposed to start accepting nuclear waste by 1998.
The remote desert land was already owned by the federal government and it was adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, where officials tested nuclear devices for 40 years.
The government poured $15 billion into creating a repository deep under the mountain. But, in the face of stiff opposition from Nevada residents, environmentalists and elected officials, including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, the effort to build the repository stalled.
Work to find an alternative storage site has floundered. Meanwhile, Congress failed to approve funding for Yucca Mountain, which then-President Donald Trump had sought.
Maine Yankee and two other closed nuclear power plants have won numerous court battles — and nearly $600 million in damages, paid with money that comes from U.S. taxpayers — over the lack of long-term storage for their waste. Additional litigation is ongoing.
Meanwhile, the waste remains in Wiscasset.
“What to do?” Hudson said. “Every year, we convene the community advisory panel and we agree to write another letter to the congressional delegation, and wave our hands in the air. ‘We’re here! We want somebody to do what they’re supposed to do and take responsibility for this fuel.’”
Asking the federal government to fulfill its obligation to safely store the nation’s nuclear waste is not an unreasonable thing to ask — as the court judgments confirm.
The Biden administration must step up to the task, before there is an accident and before millions more taxpayer dollars are wasted.