Interview with Mary Olson
Mary Olson is a staff member of
Nuclear Information and Resources Service (NIRS) in Washington, DC
by Francis and Joanna Macy
Ninety-five percent of the total global radioactivity of nuclear waste is from nuclear power plants. What is happening with the United States' share? The Forum asks an expert.
Nuclear Information Resources Service (NIRS) follows closely government policy and actions on nuclear waste. As we understand the situation, the government is obliged by law to take possession and manage irradiated fuel rods from nuclear power plants by 1998, but in 1995 it has no place to put them. Is this a crisis?
The law says in general terms that the Federal Government is going to provide for the disposal of high- level waste. The only place the 1998 date appears is in contracts which the Department of Energy has signed over the years when they supply the fresh unused fuel to the utilities. And in those contracts, 1998 has been specified as an agreement; the date is not in the law.
The government is committed by contract to remove high-level waste -- so-called spent fuel rods -- by 1998.
Yes. These contracts gave the utilities with nuclear power plants the illusion that they were going to be sending used fuel rods off to the government for reprocessing, and it was going to be a true cycle. That was an illusion. It didn't work. So that's where they are, all of them: the nuclear industry, the DOE, all these guys are dealing with the fact that the power plants' cooling pools are getting full of extremely hot fuel assemblies from reactors.
Many utilities have gotten government permission to consolidate or re-rack the fuel assemblies more closely. Is that a danger?
Yes. They are re-racking more closely. Criticality in fuel pools -- when you get a self-sustaining chain reaction going -- is a real threat. It could be pretty messy. They made a little miscalculation in the Millstone Plant in Connecticut and acknowledged that they were a lot closer to criticality than they thought they were. Meltdown of a fuel pool would be an unprecedented catastrophe.
I think the utilities want out...
they know that this stuff
is just going to keep costing,
costing and costing.
I spent two days in a systems architecture workshop with the Department of Energy, which has one scenario for waste management called: "The Just In Time Scenario". The idea is that the federal government would start picking up the used fuel rods according to which pool is the most full. They literally refer to this approach as the "Just In Time" scenario where they show up with their little truck and load the fuel up "just in time" to avoid an accident.
Is anyone worried about the 1998 deadline?
We have about a dozen plants that are going to be up past their noses with overloaded pools by that point.
Utilities are faced with the necessity of either installing their own dry casks, to store irradiated fuel rods after years in the cooling pools, or installing dry casks which the DOE supplies to them, which they like moderately better. But mainly they want the waste out the gate. They get almost rabid about the "out the gate" question.
Because waste is no longer their responsibility once it leaves the power plant site?
Right. So, we now have a second question about ownership of used fuel. When does title transfer occur or does title transfer occur at all?
One of the quandaries that was waded through in the DOE workshop was: when and how does DOE accept the waste? Is it the day DOE takes title for it? Is it the day it physically moves it? Can it take title on the site and not physically remove it? Can it physically remove it and not take title for it? Why should the government take title for it? Why should taxpayers have the title? Why should rate payers have the title?
Do the contracts have the term "assume title for the waste"?
No. The title transfer point is not yet determined, and some people say it wouldn't happen until the waste is actually in the repository. Other people propose that it happen with each reactor site becoming a new DOE nuclear waste site. This was floated out as a possibility. We would have some seventy new DOE sites.
Are some utilities proposing this?
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners decided to establish a Radioactive Waste Program Office because they were getting nervous about all this. They held a series of stakeholder meetings, bringing together utility people with government representatives. Judith Johnsrud was the only non-industry, non-government person who was on the panel and she went with great trepidation because a lot of us were saying, "Boycott! Boycott!" But I'm glad she did, because this was the place where she first heard, and I first heard, the idea that they might simply leave the used fuel where it was at nuclear power plants and declare the location DOE sites, as the way to get utilities off the hook. I think this is mainly a threat from utilities to try to motivate DOE to solve their problem.
What do the utilities with nuclear reactors and nuclear waste want?
I think the utilities want out. Not only because they don't want the liability for radioactive accidents and waste, but also because they know that this stuff is just going to keep costing, costing and costing. And they want out.
What is your vision, Mary, for a responsible way of managing the spent fuel rods?
This is the place where I always get very circumspect and quiet. And I will tell you why.
Many activists portray the "waste problem" as the only barrier between the first generation of nuclear power plants and the next. So they are unwilling to talk about solutions to the waste problem and are accused of brinksmanship. My response is: it was not we who started the brinkmanship. It was the people who made this material without knowing what to do with the lethal waste.
When Congress asked the Department of Energy to write a report on how they are going to handle the next generation of waste, if they actually build a next generation of reactors, the DOE came up with a couple of scenarios. One is the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor (ALMR) . Some people think it is a good idea because it allegedly makes waste that is less long-lived.
Can it reduce waste, or does the DOE intend to have people think that the waste will be taken care of whereas in fact it will not?
Right. It is a total con! Plus it makes an even greater low-level waste problem. It just doesn't do the job. It only effects two percent of the fuel waste.
It reduces the radioactivity by two percent?
It will take only about two percent of the radionuclides and render them shorter lived, leaving 98 percent, including much of the long-lived radionuclides untouched, and producing significant quantities of so-called low-level waste.
You say "so-called low-level waste". Low-level is a misnomer, isn't it?
Yes. Right now it is an institutional classification system. [see U.S. Waste Categories, page 13] This means classifying waste on the basis of its source not it's danger as the names imply. So whether it's a whole fuel rod, pieces of a fuel rod or a dissolved fuel rod it's essentially is high-level waste.
What changes are you proposing in the classification system?
To change things instantly to include the longevity of the hazard in determining high from low. It's not the only factor. Intensively radioactive but short-lived materials that will not be radioactive several months from now are still a problem. (I know that because of what happened to me.) But protecting the planet from materials that will no longer be radioactive in several months is a different level of issue and ought to be regulated in a different manner.
States that are continuing to build
these so-called low-level dumps
are basically doing it as volunteers
to nuclear industry. They don't
have to under existing law.
The federal government made states responsible for so-called low-level waste, but the compact system has broken down.
The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act is the law that says that the states are responsible for the low-level waste generated within their borders. But states are not given clear authority to regulate how much of this material is produced. Thus it is a total bail out for commercial companies, that can turn responsibilities for their lethal and environmentally catastrophic waste over to the tax payer. In fact, the take-title provision of the low-level waste law was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 1992 as unconstitutional. The federal government does have preemptive authority over a state government where there are two laws that disagree, but where there are no state laws, the federal government has no right to tell the state: Thou shalt do this.
States that are continuing to build these so-called low-level dumps are basically doing it as volunteers to nuclear industry. They wouldn't have to under existing law. Now there are 14 proposed dumps for low-level waste in this country. A key reason to oppose such facilities is that of the six that ever operated, three were forcibly closed because they were such catastrophes. They are at Maxey Flats in Kentucky, Sheffield in Illinois, and West Valley in New York. And a fourth, at Beatty, Nevada, was closed legislatively. We are concerned about those still operating.
There is plenty of documentation about this. The simple fact is that when you bury this stuff, it doesn't stay put. We have a dynamic living system of a planet and the radioactive material cycles around. There is less information about how it moves in the desert. But there is no reason to think that it is going to stay put there, either.
Isn't there some information about what happens in the desert?
The most eloquent piece of evidence is this: when somebody took samples of the water beneath Ward Valley, California's proposed desert dump site, they found tritium in it. Since the radioactive waste dump is not opened yet, the only way for tritium, with a 12.3 year half-life to be there is from fallout from atmospheric bomb testing or some other surface source. There is just no way tritium would still be radioactive from the formation of the earth. The most likely sources are atmospheric bomb testing. So this shows that radioactivity moves, even beneath the desert.
There is a lot of evidence to show that with the whole cycle of flooding and rapid rainfall, the water either penetrates very deep and very fast, or evaporates. So in the desert there is the possibility of dispersal of radioactive materials through evaporation as well as through leaching. There is evidence that animals and insects at Hanford have been spreading radioactive materials as vectors. There are plenty of ways radioactive elements can move in a dynamic, biologically active system which is what the whole planet is.
What has happened to the effort to declare some radioactive waste "below regulatory concern"?
You see, the facilities of the nuclear age are aging. As the nuclear power utilities and government are having to deal with issues of decommissioning and dismantling contaminated facilities, they would love to be able to cut down the total amount of material that they have to treat as radioactive waste. So the approach of relabeling as "Below Regulatory Concern" (BRC) much waste was designed to enable them to cut overnight by one third the total amount of so-called low-level waste in this country. This is acting like a Caesar -- to declare by the stroke of a pen that one third of the waste stream is no longer radioactive. Plutonium and hot materials from reactors are included in that stream to be diluted and dispersed through the normal waste system.
How could such a lethal substance as plutonium be below regulatory concern?
They just simply declare that certain waste streams will, on paper, deliver an annual average dose of less than ten millirem a year and are therefore harmless.
So if it didn't include much plutonium it could be below regulatory concern?
Sure. It just means that they can dilute radioactive materials with non-radioactive waste down to below ten millirem per unit of volume. It is all self-reporting. It is all in units that cannot be measured. And it's all in the name of reducing the amount of material that would have to go to a regulated nuclear waste dump. Instead the diluted material would be sent to ordinary landfills and incinerators. It could end up in construction and consumer products.
How did you oppose the BRC approach?
We managed, with a huge grassroots effort nationwide -- including 14 states that passed laws requiring continued regulation of radioactive materials -- to get a provision in and through Congress in the National Energy Policy Act that was signed by George Bush in the fall of 1992 that included (a) revocation of BRC policies and (b) a statement that states could have standards on deregulated waste that are stricter than federal standards.
Congratulations to you and the many collaborating grassroots groups who successfully campaigned against the BRC approach to handling nuclear waste.
For further information contact Nuclear Information and Resources Service, 1424 16th Street NW, #404, Washington, DC 20036, USA. tel: 202-328-0002.
Francis and Joanna Macy are founding members of the Nuclear Guardianship Project.
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