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Armed Guards Protect Tons Of Nuclear Waste That Maine Can’t Get Rid Of

Maine Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste has been stored in these cement and steel canisters since the plant’s decommissioning.
Courtesy of Maine Yankee
via Bangor Daily News
Maine Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste has been stored in these cement and steel canisters since the plant’s decommissioning.

In the summertime, the picturesque village of Wiscasset is infamous for its long lines of people hungry to try a lobster roll at Red’s Eats and cars that crawl through town on the often-clogged U.S. Route 1.

But just a few miles south of downtown is a different kind of roadblock: 550 metric tons of nuclear waste stored on a coastal peninsula at the now-decommissioned Maine Yankee atomic energy plant that have nowhere to go.

The change in presidential administrations means another chance for the federal government to make good on its promise to remove the waste, so the site can be closed for good. The Biden administration’s Department of Energy seems to be picking up where the Obama administration left off, creating a process for communities to volunteer to host the waste.

“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, said. “We’re currently in this limbo.”

That’s a problem because the waste — 1,400 spent nuclear fuel rods housed in 60 cement and steel canisters, plus four canisters of irradiated steel removed from the nuclear reactor when it was taken down — is safe for now, but can’t stay in Wiscasset forever.

The situation in Wiscasset underscores a thorny issue facing more than 100 communities across the U.S.: close to a hundred thousand tons of nuclear waste that has no place to go.

Securing these remnants of nuclear energy generation is an ongoing task that requires armed guards around the clock and costs Maine Yankee’s owners some $10 million per year, which is being paid for with money from the government.

After the government failed to remove the spent fuel, Maine Yankee and the other two decommissioned nuclear power plants in New England — Connecticut Yankee in East Hampton, Connecticut, and Yankee Atomic in Rowe, Massachusetts — took it to court. So far, they have been awarded a total of $575.5 million in damages during four rounds of litigation, money that has been paid out of the U.S. Judgment fund. A fifth round is happening now, and the lawsuits are likely to continue until the fuel is removed.

All told, the country’s many abandoned nuclear facilities — including Maine Yankee — have cost the federal government billions of dollars, a sum that increases by about $2 million each day, according to Eric Howes, the spokesperson for Maine Yankee and two other decommissioned plants in New England.

“All the taxpayers in the United States are paying for the government’s failure to meet its obligations,” he said.

But as the years pass, it seems that fewer and fewer people even realize that there are tons of nuclear waste on the secured site behind a chain-link fence on Bailey Point. Hudson and others worry that for many, it’s too easy not to think about it, diminishing the drive to find a better solution.

“Nobody ever travels by it. Nobody ever sees it,” Hudson said. “It’s the classic out of sight, out of mind.”

An unplanned legacy

Keeping the spent fuel on the site was meant to be a temporary solution until the dry storage casks, or canisters, could be transported to a permanent home deep underground where they could stay undisturbed for hundreds of thousands of years.

That was the government’s promise when Maine Yankee began to shut down its operations.

The federal government developed nuclear technology during World War II, and after the war, civilian companies began to generate electricity in nuclear power plants. Between 1959 and 2016, there have been a total of 119 plants in operation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Of those, 55 remain in operation today.

Because high-level nuclear waste remains radioactive for so long — tens of thousands of years or longer — politicians and bureaucrats long ago determined that its disposal couldn’t be left up to each private company. Instead, there needed to be a national strategy for the disposal of the waste.

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.

On paper, Yucca Mountain made sense — the desert land was remote and already owned by the government. It also 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 from the beginning, the Yucca Mountain plan faced fierce opposition from Nevada residents, environmentalists and elected officials.

The effort to build the repository stalled, and it was never completed.

Meanwhile, the government began seeking other solutions. During the Obama administration, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended that the government should work on creating a “consent-based” process to find a community where stakeholders agree to store the spent fuel.

That’s easier said than done, according to Howes.

“How do you get consent and how do you maintain consent?” he said. “It’s a complicated issue.”

During the Trump administration, officials reversed course and requested funding for Yucca Mountain during three budget cycles, but Congress never approved it.

The Biden administration has made it clear that Yucca Mountain is not on the table any more, Howes said. The Department of Energy seems ready to resume trying to start a consent-based process to find a new location for permanent storage.

“Everyone agrees that ultimately we’ll need a geologic repository for this material,” he said.

But it’s probable that the Wiscasset waste’s next destination will be at a temporary consolidated storage facility. Because the federal government has been at an impasse on the issue for more than a decade, private companies are likely to play a role in creating and running these storage sites. None exist yet, but two private companies in New Mexico and Texas are close to being licensed through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Temporary storage has detractors too, though.

“One of the criticisms levied against consolidated interim storage is that interim can easily become permanent, unless you have a long-term solution,” Howes said.

The situation in Maine

Maine Yankee, a 900-megawatt pressurized water reactor, operated between 1972 and 1996. It was the state’s largest generator of electricity. It also paid for more than 90 percent of the tax base for the town of Wiscasset, a percentage that dropped precipitously when it stopped generating electricity. The taxes paid by Maine Yankee to the town dropped from nearly $12 million a year during its operation to around $770,000 last year.

The plant was decommissioned in 2005, after an eight-year process. So far, more than 600 acres of the site have been either donated to the Chewonki Foundation to be used as a nature preserve or sold to a developer. But the remaining site can’t be completely closed until it is no longer effectively a very expensive nuclear waste storage facility.

Wiscasset Town Manager Dennis Simmons said that the fact that the waste is still there can be problematic in terms of development.

“When the housing market got pretty hot when COVID hit, we did have some people call and say, ‘Hey, I planned to buy a house, but it was by the Maine Yankee site, and we decided we didn’t want to go there,’” he said. “We tell them it’s very safe. There are no immediate issues. We just don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward.”

Still, he doesn’t believe Maine Yankee’s continued presence in Wiscasset has had a huge impact on the people who already live there.

“I think people here have just learned to live with it,” he said.

A ‘hot potato’

The canisters can’t stay on the 11-acre storage site on Bailey Peninsula in Wiscasset forever. And the specter of climate change and ocean level rise adds urgency to the hunt for a solution. Wiscasset has a 27 percent risk of at least one flood over 5 feet taking place between now and 2050, according to Climate Central, an independent organization that conducts scientific research on climate change.

“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.’”

In April, Sen. Susan Collins introduced legislation that would have provided federal assistance to communities coping with the storage of nuclear waste. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree also have been proponents of legislation that would help solve the problem.

In June, King urged Jennifer Granholm, the secretary of energy, to take action.

“This is a broken promise by the federal government,” he said during a hearing. “The commitment was, we’ll take care of the waste. … [Instead,] we’ve got what amounts to a hundred high level nuclear waste sites scattered around the country, including one in Maine.”

Despite their efforts, Hudson is not expecting anything to happen soon.

“It really is a hot potato,” he said. “Nobody wants to deal with it. And as a result, there are well over 100 sites like Maine Yankee all over this country, where the local community is faced with hosting systems that within a certain amount of time will present a problem.”

It is clear to him that the country needs to figure out a viable nuclear waste strategy, and soon. He believes that in order to do that fairly, there needs to be community involvement and agreement, as well as a consideration of the fact that the repository needs to be stable and effective for generations.

“I shudder to think that it’s going to be there on Bailey Point in another 50 years,” he said. “There’s even a chance it will be there at the beginning of the next century. And frankly, I don’t think that’s going to be good for anybody.”

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.

Corrected: July 20, 2021 at 8:24 AM EDT
A previous version of this story stated the wrong amount of spent nuclear fuel stored at the Maine Yankee site in Wiscasset. It is 550 metric tons, not thousands of tons. It also mischaracterized the total amount of spent nuclear fuel stored in the United States — there are close to a hundred thousand metric tons, not hundreds of thousands of metric tons.