Heads In The Sand Make Limerick
A Permanent Nuclear Dump
This summer, Limerick supervisors voted to let Exelon build an outdoor concrete pad so it could move radioactive waste from nearly-full indoor pools to outdoor casks at the Limerick plant. The vote was unanimous, overturning the Township Planning Commission. The mood of the supervisors was casual. Chairman David Kane said voting “no” wasn’t an option believing a court would later reverse the decision.
The Democratic victory in November means Harry Reid is now the powerful Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. Reid is from Nevada, the home of Yucca Mountain, designated to become a permanent repository for nuclear waste. Reid, a long time opponent of the Yucca project, declares it “dead right now,” meaning nuclear plants like Limerick are stuck with nuclear waste indefinitely.
Kane told the Mercury that storing waste at plants like Limerick is a “terrible solution.” But he and the other supervisors were deluding themselves this summer if they assumed that Yucca would open any time soon.
Nuclear reactors that made atomic bombs began operating in 1943, and reactors that produce electricity started in 1957. But it wasn’t until 1982, when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, that any effort was made to find a site for permanently housing the waste. Without the law, each plant just stored the waste it produced.
After the law was enacted, it took another 20 years for the U.S. Energy Department to examine several possible locations and choose Yucca as the designated site. But long before the November vote and Reid’s ascension to power, the Yucca plan was in big trouble. The plan is mired in a variety of legal challenges, and even the most optimistic projection is that it won’t be ready until 2018. But the surer bet is that it will never open.
About 77,000 tons of radioactive waste – nearly 1000 of them at Limerick - is stored at dozens of U.S. nuclear plants. That staggering total equals hundreds of Chernobyls and thousands of Hiroshima bombs. The waste is actually a deadly combination of chemicals produced only when an atomic bomb explodes or a nuclear reactor operates. If these chemicals are ejected into the air, they enter the body and cause cancer, birth defects, and other radiation-related illnesses.
One such chemical is Strontium-90. In the 1960s, mothers protesting atomic bomb tests (ironically, close to the Yucca site) held signs such as “Please No More Strontium-90,” an admission this was one of the more dangerous radioactive chemicals. The treaty signed by President John F. Kennedy banned above-ground tests. Another chemical is Plutonium-239, which decays very slowly, and will not completely be gone for 240,000 years. So the plan to store waste must be 100% foolproof – meaning absolutely no chance that waste will ever escape – for this length of time, or disaster will ensue.
Yucca Mountain is a desolate area about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The Energy Department concluded there was virtually no way to disturb the deadly chemical soup stored far underground. But water seeping through fissures into the site and frequent earthquakes make Yucca unsuitable for waste storage. Moreover, the potential of a terrorist attack makes any site unsuitable.
Opening Yucca would also require that waste would be shipped across the country by trucks, trains, and sometimes barges. Thousands of trips would be made, many through large population centers. The cargo on each trip would be the deadly stew of radioactivity, with 40 to 200 times the radioactivity of the Hiroshima bomb. Any successful terrorist attack or accident would be absolutely disastrous. The term applied to each shipment is “Mobile Chernobyl.”
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved, or rather rubber-stamped, all 36 applications from companies like Exelon to take the waste from the overloaded pools and move it to outside casks. Limerick Supervisor Renee Chesler commented that citizens can go to elected officials if they have concerns. But Chesler, like Kane, deliberately ignored the realities of nuclear politics.
Kane, Chesler, and the other Limerick supervisors are savvy enough to know that Yucca was going nowhere. They knew there was no solution to the waste problem 50 years ago when nuclear reactors began operating, and there is no solution now. They had the chance this summer to stop Exelon from adding more waste to the already huge amount, but chose to hide their heads in the sand. And with their blessing, Limerick has now been made into a dump for the most dangerous stuff on earth, for the foreseeable future and maybe forever, threatening us, our children, and future generations.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research group based in New York.