Nuclear waste has been stored in locations around the country, including Wiscasset, in containers that were meant to be temporary.
Maine Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste has been stored in these cement and steel canisters since the plant's decommissioning. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Yankee

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At a recent hearing of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the next generation of potential nuclear power, which has no direct carbon emissions.

While the advancement of new types of nuclear energy are exciting and promising, U.S. Sen. Angus King brought the discussion back to an important point: As the U.S. pursues new types of nuclear power, it needs to prioritize cleaning up the waste from existing and closed nuclear power plants.

Nuclear waste is now stored in dozens of communities around the country, including Wiscasset. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We understand the difficulty of finding longer-term disposal locations, but worry that this work is taking much too long.

When nuclear power plants are decommissioned, as Maine Yankee was in 2005, the plan was that their waste was supposed to go to a national repository. But that long-term storage site has never been built. So waste has been stored in locations around the country in containers that were meant to be temporary.

This is unacceptable, dangerous and a waste of taxpayer money.

When, King asked, would this problem of high-level nuclear waste being spread around the country be resolved?

Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said that the Biden administration was excited to be making progress on this issue and had recently received applications from communities that are considering becoming hosts for this waste. Some of them will soon receive a portion of $26 million in federal funding to further explore what this entails.

The administration has turned to a “consensus driven” approach to locating safe nuclear waste disposal sites. This more voluntary approach comes after the failure of a long-term effort to build a safe storage facility on federal land.

We’re skeptical that it will be more successful.

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 government poured $15 billion into creating a repository deep under the mountain. But, in the face of stiff opposition from Nevada residents, tribal members, environmentalists and elected officials, including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, the effort to build the repository stalled. The Yucca Mountain repository plan was essentially abandoned in 2009, although then-President Donald Trump tried to revive it.

Since then, work to find an alternative storage site has floundered. As a result, the waste remains in Wiscasset with hopes that other communities will offer to host a long-term storage facility.

Meanwhile, a federal fund dedicated to the storage of nuclear waste from power plants sits idle.

To pay for the waste disposal, a tax was assessed on the generation of nuclear power. It was paid by utility customers, including homeowners and businesses. The fund now has nearly $50 billion, which came from the tax and interest earned by the fund. But, the money can’t be used to help defray the costs of storage in places like Wiscasset because that is not its congressionally mandated purpose.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins recently secured $16.5 million in federal funding for assistance to communities dealing with nuclear power plant closures, like Wiscasset.

So, we’re glad that Huff of the Energy Department is excited. We, sadly, don’t see much reason for excitement in a process that has dragged on for far too long without any appreciable movement toward a permanent solution.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...