Generational Transfer Of Risk

Decommissioning Our Nuclear Power Stations: Mission Impossible?

Review by Caroline Phillips, Fairewinds Administrator

As most of you, our followers and viewers, know, Fairewinds Energy Education has real concerns about nuclear waste abandonment as nuclear corporations begin the process of decommissioning and dismantling nuclear power plants. Sponsored by the Lintilhac Foundation, Fairewinds issued a major report about decommissioning Vermont Yankee in March 2015.  Beyond Nuclear, Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance, and Vermont Citizens Action Network invited Fairewinds Energy Education to speak at the United States premiere of Decommissioning Our Nuclear Power Stations: Mission Impossible? in Montpelier, VT, Wednesday, June 3rd.

I attended this Arte France documentary production that examines the ongoing decommissioning process of shutdown nuclear reactors in France, Germany, and the United States.  The film is frightening as it shows the harrowing reality of how unprepared the nuclear industry and governments throughout the world are to decommission and dismantle these nuclear power plants that are aged beyond operational safety regulations, and no longer economically viable.

Nuclear waste remains highly radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years.

Accurately researched, this Arte France documentary makes it apparent that 40-years ago, the designers of these nuclear reactors had no idea how to safely break down and dispose of the highly radioactive material and waste produced while in operation.  Most disturbingly, no progress has been made in determining how to protect such waste for the necessary 250,000 years required.

Director Bernard Nicolas takes his audience to the failed German nuclear waste abandonment site, Asse, where engineers experimented with salt mine storage to contain nuclear waste. In 2004, the Asse site suffered ground movement and water seeped into the salt mines causing the walls to collapse. Radiation is now escaping from this failed site and workers are racing against time to inject concrete into the collapsed areas to stifle the radiation leak before the walls move again.

Another failed attempt at nuclear waste containment in France used asphalt to trap toxic contaminants. This resulted in the release of hydrogen fumes that now present a high risk of explosion should it meet with oxygen. Currently, experts cannot and do not agree on what is the best method for nuclear waste disposal. It does not exist.

Next, the film takes us to Maine to the former Maine Yankee nuclear site and what the industry has declared an “Interim Storage Facility for Spent Nuclear Fuel (ISFSI)”. Once an operational power plant, Maine Yankee shut down due to safety problems that were too expensive to fix.

Safety issues continue at Maine Yankee as dry casks full of highly radioactive spent fuel sit on-site in the open air without a final resting place and no existing options for final disposal. A few weeks ago, Fairewinds caught the Nuclear Regulatory Commission involved first hand in the cover up of a retracted event report citing an unidentified drone flyover of Maine Yankee. The abandoned nuclear waste at Maine Yankee is expensive and exposed to potential terrorist attack and cask degradation as it sits on-site indefinitely.

Finally, the film looks at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in southern Vermont. Shut down in December of 2014, Vermont Yankee is facing imminent decommissioning and entering a potential era of waste abandonment and faulty storage.

By examining previously decommissioned nuclear plants all over the world, we learn from Nicolas’ video, from start to finish the decommissioning process is full of safety gaps and risk. No longer operational and productive, utility companies are not quick to begin the expensive task of safe decommissioning and lack the incentive to take the proper safety measures necessary to handle radioactive waste.

This leads to a major issue of generational transfer of risk. Not only is this highly toxic, radioactive waste passed down from generation to generation without a proper solution for disposal but the physical dismantlement of nuclear sites takes decades for completion with the weighty transfer of responsibility passed on to workers without proper experience and knowledge.

Currently, Vermont Yankee utility owner Entergy has promised 60-years of decommissioning oversight. Fairewinds has pointed out that the number 60 has no basis in science and is a very arbitrary number, but without going into that too much, let’s look at the fact that in 60-years many of us will no longer be around. Already, Entergy has transplanted Vermont Yankee workers to other nuclear sites around the country, stripping VY of staff familiar with the site, its surroundings, and equipment. It is safe to say that within the 60-year time frame, an even newer set of workers will take over decommissioning work with even less familiarity of how the plant was originally operated, where the plant’s weaknesses lie, and overall knowledge of quirks particular to Vermont Yankee.

The handling of radioactive waste is not to be taken lightly, the very fact that the world has no solution as to how to contain and dispose of this toxic material is proof that extra care, extra effort, and complete competence is necessary during decommissioning and dismantlement of a nuclear power plant.

So, where does that leave us? It’s clear that nuclear power is not a safe or economical energy solution and the world does not need more radioactive waste hanging around; we have enough of that already. More and more nuclear reactors are facing shutdown as people realize the issue of climate change is best solved with green, renewable energy alternatives and states must prepare to take on a more active role in nuclear decommissioning.

State and public authority during plant decommissioning is most likely to come in the form of money. Currently, states like Vermont whose ratepayers contributed heavily to the Vermont Yankee corporate decommissioning fund have no ability to audit and oversee those funds since they are not related to the expenditure of state or federal funds. In order to protect citizens from lax decommissioning and waste abandonment by the nuclear industry, states must create a funding source to be used specifically for shutdown nuclear sites.

With money comes power, a state’s power to hold the nuclear industry accountable for the radioactive waste it has produced appears to be one of the best ways to push for safer nuclear waste disposal and reduce generational transfer of risk.  Waste abandonment cannot be allowed to turn our world into a series of neglected and leaking highly radioactive dumps located adjacent to precious lakes, rivers, bays, oceans, and aquifers.

Fairewinds will keep you informed.  

Related Articles:

WCAX TV captured Fairewinds’ Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen’s presentation on decommissioning following the US premiere of the French film, Decommissioning our Nuclear Power Stations: Mission Impossible?.

State Auditor Doug Hoffer says that the concerns brought to him by Fairewinds Energy Education in a 35-page report outlining the concerns over the decommissioning plan of Vermont Yankee are legitimate, according to VTDigger reporter Amy Ash Nixon.