How nuclear waste is stored prompts safety concerns as plants shut down
When Three Mile Island partially melted down March 28, 1979, the danger was immediate and came from within the plant. A failure — either mechanical or electrical — led to the disaster, the highest-profile nuclear power scare in American history.
If the plant closes as planned in 2019, that scenario won’t happen again.
But without a federal plan to remove nuclear waste from the site, danger will lurk at Three Mile Island for years, decades or centuries.
Some have speculated that a nuclear incident could actually be more likely after plants such as TMI close, which is happening across the nation with increasing frequency. Those concerns follow decades of stalled solutions for the long-term storage of nuclear waste.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is alarmed by the length of time haz- ardous materials could be stored at nuclear plant sites.
If security is reduced after plants close, the waste could be more vulnerable to attack, said Dave Lochbaum, the director of the group’s Nuclear Safety Project.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the governing agency for the industry, said the security risks of a decommissioned plant are greatly reduced.
Three Mile Island — like all nuclear power plants — will house dangerous nuclear waste for the foreseeable future, whether or not the plant begins the decommissioning process in 2019.
There is “currently no other place for it to go,” NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.
Plans to consolidate all of America’s nuclear waste in a single secure location have stalled for years.
McIntyre said the waste could be hauled off to a proposed temporary storage facility in the Southwest, but it
would be years before such a site could be ready.
Lochbaum said a site such as TMI could house hazardous waste for decades or centuries.
Lochbaum said the waste has the potential for massive harm.
He compared the radioactive waste to a “dirty bomb” and suggested an incident could affect people who live several miles away from the site.
McIntyre said the path to a disaster involving stored nuclear waste would be unlikely. He noted in an email that even in an extreme scenario, the waste would not create a nuclear explosion.
Nuclear waste is stored in two primary ways: submerged in water or placed in a fortified cask. In either case, according to the NRC, breaching the devices would require an attack of incredible precision or a natural disaster of incredible strength.
The agency stressed that if either of those scenarios were to occur, the possible harm from nuclear waste would be far less than what exists at an active nuclear plant.
An active nuclear power plant has far more destructive potential than nuclear waste alone — that’s not contested by either the government or the Union of Concerned Scientists.
What is disputed: Does security at decommissioned plants keep up with the risks?
Though any attack on a nuclear plant would have to be sophisticated to succeed, Lochbaum said he worries that “once a plant shuts down … the balance shifts more and more towards the bad guys being successful.”
Active plants are required to do force-on-force drills, which simulate an attack for training and evaluation purposes. Lochbaum said decommissioned plants don’t do such drills.
That could leave dangerous waste vulnerable, he said.
McIntyre said the regulatory agency has the same security requirements for operating and decommissioned plants — even though the risk of danger is less at a closed plant.
“The plants are protected,” McIntyre said in a written statement. “They remain protected during decommissioning appropriate to the potential hazard to public health and security.”
He said sites can request waivers for certain security requirements. Force-on-force drills are one of the waivers most often requested and approved, he said.
How will the Three Mile Island shutdown play out locally? How will the nuclear waste be stored? Who will guard it?
The public won’t know until the shutdown actually begins in the fall of next year.
When the closure begins, TMI will turn in its license and produce a report within 30 days detailing how transitional details such as the storage of nuclear waste will be handled, according to spokesman David Marcheskie.
That plan is being drafted, he said.
Three Mile Island — like all nuclear power plants — will continue to house nuclear waste.