Nuclear Waste News April - July 2016
The following is a compendium of news reports over the preceding two months that may be of interest to our AG offices who are dealing with DOE sites or general nuclear waste issues. Neither the National Association of Attorneys General nor the National Attorneys General Training & Research Institute expresses a view as to the accuracy of news accounts, nor as to the position expounded by the authors of the hyperlinked articles.
DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY (DOE)
A federal district judge in Washington ruled against the DOE, ordering the government to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The judge noted that the DOE has engaged in a pattern involving a lack of transparency and that it is legally bound by its cleanup deadlines, and gave the state the option to return to court if the DOE fails to comply. In particular, the judge noted the importance of ensuring that the DOE complies with milestones as part of its legal obligations as opposed to those milestones simply being ideal objectives. Washington filed suit against the DOE, alleging that it failed to meet deadlines as outlined in the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement. The court’s ruling sets particular dates for action, including that a treatment plant to process low-activity radioactive waste must be functional by 2023, a pretreatment facility by 2033, and a high-level waste facility must be started by 2032. Nuclear watchdog groups fear that the ruling does not go far enough, particularly in light of growing concern over leaking shell tanks in the region. A copy of the court’s opinion can be found here.
In May, a Massachusetts nuclear energy company filed a complaint in federal court, alleging that the DOE failed to compensate it for nuclear waste storage fees incurred at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Boston Edison, along with Entergy Nuclear Generation Company, the plaintiff companies, sued the DOE in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims seeking to recover $40 million in damages for violating the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Boston Edison sold the Pilgrim plant in 1999 to Entergy Nuclear Generation Company, which is expected to continue operating the plant through 2019. In a consolidated case, both companies have sued the DOE for breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith. The case is currently pending before the court.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (EPA)
The EPA recently announced that it intends to move forward with a plan to clean the West Lake nuclear landfill in Missouri by the end of the year. West Lake was placed under the EPA’s authority in 1990; however, the agency has yet to reveal plans for cleanup. The announcement comes after a recent Senate vote to transfer authority in that area over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. While the EPA is aware of the Senate vote, it says the legislation will not affect its plan for cleanup in the region. West Lake has stored radioactive material since World War II and contains approximately 150,000 tons of waste to date. West Lake continues to be particularly concerning for Missouri because of the subsurface fire that has been burning at the nearby Bridgeton Landfill, raising questions over what would happen if it reaches West Lake. A class action suit has been filed against the company that stored the waste, alleging that its operations have resulted in an increased number of cancer cases within the nearby community.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has publically criticized the EPA for missing deadlines in the West Lake cleanup. In his letter, General Koster particularly called on the EPA to provide radiological maps, research data, and isolation barrier design plans to prevent the spread of fire from the Bridgeton landfill. General Koster also requested updates on the EPA’s testing regarding how radiological waste would react if it came into contact with the underground fire. In response the EPA stated that it planned to release maps showing the extent of radioactive contamination “in coming days.” A copy of General Koster’s letter can be found here.
NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION (NRC)
A newly-released study by the NRC finds that current rules and regulations provide a “high degree of protection” for the transportation of spent nuclear fuel in the California region. Safe transportation of nuclear waste is seen as an essential component to any future permanent repository plans. Present rules require that packaging containing the waste be able to stand for least 30 minutes in a fire that can reach temperatures upwards of 1,740 degrees Fahrenheit. The study concluded that the risk of severe rail fires resulting from such sustained heat is minimal, noting only one fire-related hazardous material incident from 1975 to 2005. The study praises the infrequency of fire accidents related to transporting spent fuel, due in large part to the effectiveness of special packaging and the use of buffer cars to shield the spent fuel packages and dedicated trains. The NRC held a period of open commentary on the study. A copy of the draft study report can be found here.
United States Representative Mick Mulvaney introduced legislation in March that would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and assist nuclear power plants to dispose of high-level nuclear waste in light of the questioned status of the Yucca Mountain repository. Mulvaney noted that the bill would allow the government to send highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel to an interim storage site rather than wait for a permanent disposal option. Specifically, Representative Mulvaney stated that nuclear power plants “are in the power generating business . . . [t]hey’re not supposed to be in waste-management business.” Although Mulvaney conceded the bill has little chance of passing this year, he wanted to spark the debate for consideration next year. A copy of the proposed bill can be found here.
NEW MEXICO – Los Alamos and WIPP
Recently, the DOE outlined plans to send seven tons of weapons-grade plutonium to WIPP, even though the plant has been closed since February 2014. The DOE noted that the processing and packing of the material could take years, and the plan would need revision by both Congress and the New Mexico Environmental Department. The crux of the plan involves diluting surplus plutonium at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, then shipping it to WIPP. The DOE noted that it expects to partially reopen WIPP later this year, which continues to be closed due to the underground fire and unrelated radiation release later contaminating the facility. The plan comes amid fears that the six metric tons of plutonium being stored at Savannah River raise concerns about nuclear proliferation and terrorism given the amount of plutonium on site including that which has been received from foreign countries. Critics of the plan question whether additional steps would be required to accommodate the surplus fuel. An editorial in the April edition of the Albuquerque Journal points out several questions surrounding the proposal. The author specifically notes the legal limitations on storage of surplus waste and the technical hurdles faced by reopening WIPP to accommodate it.
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)
LANL held a meeting with the Defense Nuclear Facilities safety Board to discuss plans to prevent another incident that resulted in WIPP’s closure in 2014. Members of the federal advisory board inquired about emergency response plans and the threat of fires in Los Alamos, among other concerns. Officials from the DOE and the NNSA have stated that WIPP leak brought renewed focus on risk, oversight and emergency planning surrounding the facility. WIPP has taken additional measures to protect against wildfires, which have burned in nearby areas over the past decade, including making firebreaks and trimming brush. Local residents and critics of WIPP felt that the four-hour hearing failed to produce results needed for adequate corrective action to address the noted problems.
At the same time, the New Mexico Environment Department released a draft of a new agreement with the DOE and LANL to clean up decades of hazardous waste at WIPP after missed deadlines for waste removal last December. In a statement, State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn hailed the new agreement as a “complete overhaul” of the state’s relationship with the DOE, intended to accelerate cleanup and help secure more federal funding for continued work at the plant.
Managers at WIPP announced progress on the installation of a new ventilation system at WIPP. Subcontractors completed work to tie in a new system to existing ductwork that is expected to increase airflow. Officials hope that WIPP can resume operations later this year. A new wireless communication system was also installed to help workers underground signal officials aboveground in the event of an emergency. The new system also provides for real-time tracking of all personnel entering the underground facility. These recent measures have been adopted at WIPP as a direct result of the 2014 leak.
As negotiation continue over WIPP’s reopening, state emergency services were awarded funding under a settlement arising from the 2014 leak. The State Emergency, Minerals, and Natural
Resource Department will receive $800,000 as part of the settlement between the DOE and the state, with a majority of the money allocated for training and equipment for emergency personnel and hospital staff.
Following an NRC study, the DOE began searching for contractors who can provide transportation services for the WIPP facility. The current contracts held by CAST Specialty Transportation Inc. and Visionary Solutions LLC will expire next year. The contracts cover the operation of a local terminal and carrier services for hazardous and radioactive wastes from federal sites across the country to the repository at WIPP.
WASHINGTON – Hanford Nuclear Reservation
A double walled nuclear waste storage tank at the Hanford Nuclear Site has deteriorated, triggering a leak detection alarm at the facility and raising concerns that radioactive waste has pooled between the inner and outer tank’s shell. Further investigation did not find any environmental leakage or risk to the public, however. Washington River Protection Solutions is the contracting company handling the leaking pump. Columbia Riverkeeper, an Oregon based environmental group, stated that the Hanford tanks were not designed to hold waste for decades and that time has long passed to remove waste from the facility.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington questioned the DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz regarding its plans for the Hanford site at a Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee hearing. Congress proposed in the 2017 fiscal year budget a cut of funding for Hanford by $191 million to $800 million, raising concern over the DOE’s ability to meet its deadlines for the project. Moniz agreed to work with Senator Murray to prioritize cleanup risks and prepare a detailed plan on how the DOE can successfully complete cleanups in the future. A copy of the release and video can be found here.
TEXAS – A Free-market Approach to Nuclear Waste
Waste Control Specialists (WCS), a Texas company, has submitted an application to the NRC to build a privately-run radioactive waste repository in the state. The company intends to store high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel at an interim facility in West Texas, a first of its kind in the nation. Company President Rod Baltzer said in a statement that the 155-acre facility could be operational by 2021 and hold 40,000 metric tons of nuclear waste and fuel. The facility aims to receive material from eight shut-down or decommissioned nuclear power plants around the country. The proposed repository would be an addition to the two separately licensed disposal facilities WCS already operates in the state, including the Texas Compact Disposal Facility—the only licensed commercial radioactive waste disposal facility in the country in operation today. Although the company faces a number of hurdles until operation can commence after 2021, the submitted application is considered a milestone for nuclear waste disposal. In 2006, Private Fuel Storage, a project funded by eight private electricity companies, was given the green light to build an interim storage facility in Utah; however, the project was halted in 2012 after the U.S. Department of Interior denied the application for a land lease and right-of-way to cross American Indian land. The NRC anticipates it will receive an application from Holtec International as well for a second interim facility in New Mexico by the end of November. WCS’s application is welcomed news for operators of the Rancho Seco power plant in California, one of the eight proposed facilities to deliver waste to the interim facility. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s claims that storage and management of waste at the facility currently costs the state over $5 million annually.
NEVADA – Yucca Mountain Repository
Timbisha Shoshone Chairman George Gholson stated last month that a new Yucca Mountain report fails to consider the facilities impact on people in the Death Valley region. The Native American tribal leader noted to the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects that the report lacks key environmental impact statements on water contamination from the proposed repository. At least fifty people live in a tribal area along a river near the proposed facility. Nevada state officials were critical of the NRC’s report as well, calling it so technically and legally flawed that it would not survive a challenge under the National Environmental Policy Act. Robert Halstead, chief of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, hailed the report as a milestone towards finality of the Yucca Mountain project. A full copy of the NRC’s final report can be found here.
United States House of Representatives members recently pushed for greater probing into the Yucca Mountain project to investigate whether the DOE has the ability to complete crucial steps toward establishing the facility. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton and Rep. John Shimkus expressed concern that DOE will be unable to complete the formal application needed to establish the Yucca Mountain repository. With numerous plant closures scheduled in the near future, Upton and Shimkus would like information on available resources to the DOE should the private sector approach fail.
CALIFORNIA - San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS)
In a letter to the DOE earlier this year, Representative Darrell Issa of California expressed his concern over long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel at the closed San Onofre plant. Representative Issa stated the urgency of removal of waste at the facility, which sits near an active earthquake fault bordering Orange and San Diego counties. Last year, the California Coastal Commission endorsed a plan to allow operator Southern California Edison to move fuel from San Onofre from storage pools into steel containers. Although one third of the fuel was moved, Representative Issa feels there is a dire need for a long-term solution. A full copy of representative Issa’s letter can be found here.
NEW ENGLAND REGION
Maine Yankee Ruling
A federal court in Maine ordered the government to pay for nuclear waste storage at the now-shuttered Maine Yankee facility. The April ruling is the third such award to electricity customers in
the New England area to cover costs relating to storage of spent nuclear waste. A full copy of the court’s opinion can be found here.
A Consent-Based Approach to Waste Storage
The DOE explained on the Office of Nuclear Energy’s (ONE) website that the agency is in an initial phase of developing a consent-based process for siting long-term storage facilities. Efforts have included the DOE’s and the ONE’s series of nationwide public comment sessions to develop a consent-based process for siting facilities that are needed to store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel. As the website explains, the new approach relies on understanding views of the public and stakeholders at local, state, and tribal levels. The first June session was held in Boston with participation from surrounding New England communities. The DOE intends to work closely with communities like Maine Yankee to receive its input and perspective through facilitated discussion and use the design of consent-based siting as a framework for engaging with other potential host communities for long-term storage facilities in future.
In a piece written for the Heritage Foundation, authors Katie Tubb and Jack Spencer, argue that a truly consent-based approach starts with a free market. The authors note that tapping into the free market for managing waste facilities, like the recent approach of Waste Control Services, opens management of the nuclear industry to a diversity of options and a thriving domestic market. This approach, they write, allows for full consideration of the costs and benefits associated with a particular project that is negotiated by companies, communities, and the nuclear industry. This approach, in turn, would allow the government to fulfill its function as an unbiased regulator.
IDAHO – Idaho National laboratory (INL)
DOE has listed the Idaho National Laboratory as a possible future site for 1,300 loads of low-level nuclear waste storage. The INL was listed as a possibility among three other alternatives, including Hanford, the Nevada National Security Site, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The agency reiterated that WIPP is still the preferred facility and that a final decision must involve Congressional review of the final environmental impact statement. An opinion piece written in the Idaho Statesman outlines the historical issues faced at INL, leading up to Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s recent action against the DOE to meet its previously imposed deadlines.
PENNSYLVANIA – Susquehanna Nuclear Power Plant
Talen Generation LLC, owner of the Susquehanna Steam nuclear power plant, has appealed the denial of its application for a permit to build a 22,000 square-foot addition to its spent fuel storage facility. A Salem Township Zoning officer denied the initial permit application, noting that the addition is not allowed in the district due to zoning restrictions. Talen appealed, arguing that the company maintained a spent fuel facility within the secure perimeter of the plant for years. The permit was subsequently granted after a hearing with the state regulatory board, agreeing with Talen’s argument that the board did not have jurisdiction in the matter.
SOUTH CAROLINA – Savannah River Site (SRS)
The Savannah River Site is has been set to receive over 700 pounds of nuclear waste from Japan, where it will be diluted and shipped to the low-level nuclear waste repository at WIPP. The DOE has recently called on South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to reopen the Barnwell facility, a low-level nuclear waste repository, to out-of-state users, a facility that already contains millions of gallons of radioactive waste. An opinion piece written in the Post and Courrier argued against allowing SRS to serve as a nuclear waste dump site. The piece cited a recent court battle, in which South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson sued the DOE for failing to meet its cleanup deadlines. In response, the DOE argued that the cleanup agreement with the state is not binding, despite being codified in federal law. The case is currently pending before the court.
Local officials in Zion, Illinois, recently called on legislators to assist in getting compensation for storing nuclear waste at a facility in the region. In a letter written to federal and state officials, the town requests compensation for what is being called a detrimental effect of acting as a storage site for 2.2 million pounds of spent fuel rods from a decommissioned nuclear plant along Lake Michigan. Town officials conceded that the ideal situation would be to remove the spent rods, but many regard this as a slim possibility. The town is asking federal authorities to release funds to help offset what has been described as negatively hosting an “interim nuclear storage site” on 400-acres of lakefront property. A copy of the original letter, as well as a transcript the press conference, can be found here.
The Pierce County Commission in North Dakota recently shut down an opportunity to drill an exploratory bore hole near Rugby, North Dakota, that would have allowed researchers to probe for potential sites for nuclear waste disposal. The Commission voted unanimously against the project earlier this year. The Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC), part of the University of North Dakota, had wanted to conduct the project on state-owned land to help the DOE determine whether crystalline rock three miles deep could be used for storing spent nuclear waste. Local residents expressed an understanding of the research aspect of the project, but remain skeptical as to the viability of nuclear waste disposal in the state.
CANADA – Ontario Power Generation (OPG)
Ontario Power Generation informed the Canadian government in April that it will complete further studies on its proposed deep geological repository (DGR) for low- and intermediate-level nuclear wastes by the end of 2016. A federally appointed panel last year approved the OPG’s environmental assessment for the proposed repository at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station facility for disposal of low- and intermediate-level waste from surrounding plants. This February, Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna called on the OPG to conduct three further studies before making a final decision on the environmental assessment for the proposed repository. The first of three studies requested by the Ministry requires that OPG assess the environmental impacts in two locations in Ontario for a new nuclear waste disposal facility. Similar DGRs will be considered in southern and northern Ontario. The second study requires an updated analysis of cumulative environmental effects of the project as a whole. The third is a review of OPG’s mitigation commitments and actions. The OPG issued a news release in April outlining the requested studies in detail. In particular, the company will examine the environmental effects of two alternative, possible locations in Ontario for a new nuclear waste disposal facility in sedimentary rock formations located in southern and northern Ontario. The company did not disclose the locations in its news release. The company also will study the cumulative effects of high-level waste in accordance with Minister McKenna’s request. The company will also consider comments about mitigation efforts to lessen the impact of the proposed project, the OPG officials stated. The proposed DGR would provide permanent underground disposal for about 7 million cubic feet of waste. The waste is considered mostly industrial runoff from routine nuclear power operations. Growing concern in recent months has since stalled the project, however. Critics cite concern over the proposed DGR’s close proximity to Lake Huron. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that any decision related to the site will be delayed indefinitely pending further review of the project. OPG insists the location is safe, but opponents advocate for “less risky” alternatives. The concerns highlight the need for a permanent storage facility in both Canada and the United States, alike.
JAPAN – Fukushima Fallout
A Washington Gazette report outlines the challenges faced nearly five years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. According to the report, more than 100,000 people remain displaced, decontamination is far from complete, and radioactive waste and water continue to plague the region. The report points to a lack of solutions for disposal, citing health studies that show a growing number of thyroid cancer cases in Fukushima’s children. Radiation continues to be a great concern as well, all while more than 53% of the Japanese population opposes resuming nuclear operations. The report also notes the impact the disaster at Fukushima has had on the United States and its public opinion. A new Gallop Poll found that 54% American now oppose nuclear power.
Carnegie Mellon University
A new program at Carnegie Mellon University plans to revolutionize the way nuclear waste is handled, particularly in the context of the Fukushima disaster. As part of a robotics traineeship program between Carnegie Mellon University and the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, program participants will study how autonomous robots serve a key role in future disposal of waste from nuclear sites. The program focuses on how to use robotics to retrieve, process, store, transport, and dispose of radioactive material. Other courses in the program explore how to utilize robots within areas where radiation concern are high. The program was announced days after scientists acknowledged robotics failures inside Japan’s Fukushima Plant this past spring. Presently, the biggest challenge is overcoming the risk that radiation will melt the robots’ circuit boards as has been the case in Fukushima. The new program is scheduled to begin this fall.
Jeanette Manning is the Editor of Nuclear Waste News and may be reached at 202-326-6258. Nuclear Waste News is a publication of the National Association of Attorneys General. Any use and/or copies of this newsletter in whole or part must include the customary bibliographic citation. NAAG retains copyright and all other intellectual property rights in the material presented in this publication. For content submissions or to contact the editor directly, please e-mail email@example.com.