August 11, 2010

Panel looking at Maine Yankee's waste

Subcommittee of Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future visits old plant

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

WISCASSET -- It has been 14 years since the Maine Yankee nuclear plant generated a watt of electricity. Everything is torn down. All that remains on the grounds are 64 airtight steel canisters, most filled with highly radioactive fuel rods and housed in concrete casks.

click image to enlarge

The former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset.


The federal government promised to take them away, presumably to a permanent waste repository in the Nevada desert. But the Yucca Mountain plan was scrapped last year by the Obama administration, largely for political reasons.

Now what?

That's what a new federal panel, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, is trying to figure out. A subcommittee of the panel that deals with transportation and storage issues came here Tuesday, for its first visit to an interim storage facility at a decommissioned nuclear plant.

The group toured Maine Yankee's 5-year-old dry-cask storage facility and heard from local officials and residents. Most of them had a clear message: They want the radioactive waste gone.

But any solution appears to be at least a decade away, and is subject to the forces of politics and technology. Until then, it will be up to Maine Yankee and state and local officials to safeguard waste that could be harmful to people and the environment for thousands of years.

The commission was formed early this year by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Its job is to recommend a safe, long-term solution for spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. It must issue a draft report in 18 months and a final version in two years.

It's uncertain what the administration and Congress will do after that, said Richard Meserve, who heads the subcommittee. It could take 10 to 20 years to establish a disposal facility, he said after Tuesday's meeting, and it's too early to guess whether there's an interim fix to remove Maine Yankee's waste from Wiscasset.

Meserve, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said he understands why the Wiscasset area's residents are upset that the plant closed but the radioactive waste stayed behind. "They have a legitimate local grievance," he said.

Maine Yankee operated from 1972 to 1996. Although activists fought for years to close the plant, it was Maine Yankee's board that ultimately voted to pull the plug, rather than fix expensive safety-related problems.

Some of those activists turned out Tuesday, to speak against nuclear storage and nuclear power in general. They included Maria Holt, a retired nurse and former state lawmaker who has been studying the impact of radiation on health for 30 years.

She was joined by Ray Shadis of Friends of the Coast, who chronicled his group's involvement in shaping the terms of Maine Yankee's decommissioning.

But Maine Yankee and its former adversaries have common interests now. Both are pushing for the federal government to step up and remove the spent fuel, as it promised to start doing as of 1998.

Electricity customers have contributed $34 billion to a special fund for that purpose. Maine rate payers chip in roughly $7 million a year to store the waste, and the payment issue is tied up in the courts.

To move ahead, the commission should explore the idea of a central, interim storage site, said Wayne Norton, chief nuclear officer for Maine Yankee. It could be in a community somewhere in the country that agrees to host the facility in exchange for money.

If such a site can be developed, he said, the panel should also focus on the transportation improvements that are needed to get the waste there.

Norton chairs a coalition of decommissioned nuclear plants including Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts. Others are in Wisconsin, California and Minnesota. Those plants have storage issues similar to Maine Yankee's.

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