Photo: Topato, Flickr/CC BY
... And nowhere to put it.
What happens to all that radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants? Not much. In 1982, Congress mandated the construction of a national nuclear waste repository. It's been nearly 30 years since then, of course, and there's no such repository. Planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, it was scuttled by the Obama administration due to NIMBY issues -- and there's no rush to find an alternative to Yucca. As a result, nuke plants are still required to keep their waste on site. So, they do. In Virginia, for instance, nuclear waste continues to pile up -- at one site, the radioactive waste containers cover a plot of land the size of a football field. Between Virginia's two nuclear power plants -- the Surry and North Anna Power Stations -- there's 5.2 million pounds of waste in storage. And, of course, more is always on the way. The Daily Press sets the scene at Surry:
The bus stops before a barbed wire gate at Surry Power Station, less than a mile from the James River ... Inside the fence, on a concrete pad the size of a football field, is nearly 1.9 million pounds of radioactive nuclear waste. Encased in concrete casks and no immediate public health threat, the waste is a by-product of nearly four decades of atomic energy-making at Virginia's oldest nuclear power plant ... Most of the fuel is stored in 16-foot tall concrete casks that stand upright and weigh more than 262,000 pounds when full.Scenes like this are common across the country -- with no permanent place to store the waste, it simply piles up. There are plenty of reasons that this is unacceptable: potential ecological, human health, and security-related woes abound.
Many of these containment sites weren't designed for long-term storage, which has environmental advocates and scientists concerned. Edwin Lyman, a physicist and nuclear proliferation expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C, told the Daily Press, "There are a handful of scenarios, such as an earthquake or terrorist attack, that could cause the casks or pools to leak, he said. Also, spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive for thousands of years -- it could cause the concrete and other materials to erode."
There are also fears that nuclear waste is leeching into groundwater after years of storage -- tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen, was discovered in groundwater near North Anna. It doesn't pose any immediate health risks, officials say, but the occurrence does point to worrying possibilities. National security hawks worry that the policy of leaving so much nuclear waste onsite could be exploited. And environmentalists have long been concerned about the effects of radioactive waste on nearby wildlife and ecosystems.
There's some 138 million pounds of nuclear waste piling up at power plants around the nation. It's probably time we found someplace to lock it up.
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