DAN­GER ZONES?

How nu­clear waste is stored prompts safety con­cerns as plants shut down

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Joel Shan­non

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.

PHOTO BY BRADLEY C BOWER/AP; PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

MATT ROURKE/AP

Three Mile Is­land — like all nu­clear power plants — will con­tinue to house nu­clear waste.

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