WISCASSET, MAINE -- A screenshot of a map by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry that shows the area of the Maine Yankee nuclear waste disposal site that could be at risk of flooding in the case of the highest astronomical tide plus 10.9 feet. The area of the disposal site would remain dry. Credit: Courtesy Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

The Maine Yankee nuclear waste disposal site in Wiscasset is safe from all possible flooding, sea level rise, tornadoes, lightning strikes and other natural disasters.

For now.

As climate change makes the Atlantic Ocean sea level rise and storm presence unpredictable, the scenarios that Maine Yankee evaluated when preparing for the disposal of the 550 metric tons of nuclear waste in 2001 are in danger of being outdated.

The spent fuel that Maine Yankee protects is from its operations between 1972 to 1996, according to its website. After being decommissioned in 2005, all that remains at the former plant’s location on Bailey Point Peninsula is 60 cement and steel containers containing radioactive fuel rods that are guarded around the clock.

Locating the storage site on a peninsula bordered by the Back River may sound risky, but Maine Yankee prepared for all sorts of disasters, said Eric Howes, public and government affairs director for the nuclear company. At the time they were created, the models were based on the predicted worst-case scenario of flooding raising waters to 20 feet above sea level, Howes said in a written statement prepared after a 2018 community advisory panel meeting. The canisters sit about 34 feet above sea level, he said.

And this data lines up with predictions by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry — the sea level rise and storm surge map on its website outlines areas that would be affected by different flooding scenarios, and even at the worst case, Maine Yankee’s disposal site remains dry.

If the nuclear waste site were to flood, the concrete and steel barrels that hold the nuclear waste could corrode and threaten the integrity of the canisters. Sitting water has been shown to corrode the steel in nuclear waste containers. In a lab setting, a groundwater-like solution caused corrosion in the kinds of canisters that contain nuclear waste. That’s among the factors that could become a problem if things don’t go as predicted in 2001.

Climate threats

With climate change, everything is subject to change.

Peter Slovinksy, a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey, a part of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the rate at which the sea level is rising continues to increase. Coupled with anomalous natural disasters like southeasters and the slowing of the Gulf Stream, the water could reach levels that Mainers weren’t prepared for in the early 2000s.

One threat to the midcoast’s peninsula-filled landscape are storms Slovinsky referred to as “southeasters.” Like typical nor’easters, southeasters are severe storms that can hit the coast of Maine in the winter months. Southeasters blow water inland, unlike their more familiar counterparts. As the wind blows the water into the shore, the water stacks, causing a higher sea level for the duration of the storm.

“There’s a lot of ability for water to get back up into the river in that area when you’ve got a southeaster,” Slovinsky said. “Plus, if you think about it, a lot of these events, recently at least, have had a lot of rainfall associated with them. So you’ve got fresh water running down the river, and then you’ve got surge coming up the river.”

With nowhere for the water to exit out of the peninsulas and bays of the midcoast, the areas are particularly vulnerable to flooding, Slovinksy said. And despite rising global air temperatures, the frequency of severe winter storms will remain the same, according to  the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Sea level rise unrelated to storms is also an issue.

Though June of this year set record sea level highs in Maine, many of the monthly records belong to 2010.

“In 2010, we had an average sea level that was like, eight inches above average for almost the entire year,” Slovinsky said. “It elevates water levels. And by elevating water levels … it allows storms to reach higher up along the coastline.”

As the climate continues to warm, the Gulf Stream  is weakening, which could cause instances like 2010 to happen more and more often.

The DOE’s responsibility

Of course, the potential flooding and sea-level risk is a non-issue if the nuclear waste is removed by the federal government as promised. The U.S. Department of Energy  was constructing a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and was contractually obliged to remove Maine Yankee’s waste by 1998. But backlash from the people in Nevada led to the government abandoning the Yucca Mountain project, and it never took the waste.

While Maine Yankee still hosts the waste, care and protection of it, including armed guards and site maintenance, is paid for by the federal government. Maine Yankee and the other New England decommissioned nuclear plants — Connecticut Yankee in East Hampton, Connecticut, and Yankee Atomic in Rowe, Massachusetts — have taken the issue of the DOE’s inaction to court. The three companies  have so far been awarded $575.5 million in damages through four rounds of litigation, and a fifth round is currently underway.

The Biden administration  is following a consent-based plan to find permanent locations for nuclear waste disposal, looking for communities and companies that would be willing to store the waste. But for now, Maine Yankee has to keep an eye on the 60 concrete barrels of radioactivity as the sea keeps rising.

Jules Walkup is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by BDN readers.

Jules Walkup reports on the midcoast and is a Report for America corps member. They graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism and moved to Maine from Tampa, Florida in July 2023.