Nuclear power at crossroads; waste skeletons in need of closet

This analysis was published in the Press And Journal of Middletown, Pa., in September 2008.


By Marlene Lang  


We who live and work and go to school in Middletown are living and working and going to school at a crucial moment in the history of nuclear power. And so is the rest of the nation, of course. 


The Three Mile Island nuclear power generating plant awaits renewal – for 20 years more – of its license to operate. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to grant the license and business will likely continue, uninterrupted, on the island that sits in the Susquehanna River.


Nuclear power generation is poised to expand. The NRC is busy, busy reviewing other applications for construction of dozens of new nuclear power plants. For the near three decades since the TMI’s infamous accident of March 1979, fear stifled industry growth. Fear – and the cost of building new plants, which runs in the billions. 

There are now 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, located at the sites of 60-some plants, according to the Department of Energy and NRC Web sites. Nuclear power plants produce about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.


But the times are changing. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provided billions in tax breaks to nurture development. Federally guaranteed loans have encouraged investment in the industry, too, all part of the Department of Energy policy to develop nuclear power for the sake of “energy security.”


Skeletons in need of a closet 

Yet, there is no permanent resting place for the radioactive spent uranium fuel pellets left behind when Three Mile Island and other existing plants produce power. Nor is there a burial place for the waste that will be left behind by those yet-unapproved, yet-unbuilt nuclear power plants which today are only applications pending before the NRC. If approved, those new plants will in the years ahead be generating electricity and leaving behind radioactive waste of their own. 


The place designated as the recipient of TMI’s and the nation’s nuclear waste is Yucca Mountain, in southwestern Nevada, 90 miles from Las Vegas. The U.S. Department of Energy on June 3 filed an 8,600-page application to begin construction of the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain; right now, it’s just a very expensive, well-studied tunnel in a mountain in the desert, next to the Nevada Test Site. 


Plans for Yucca Mountain anticipated capacity to bury, first 55,000, then 70,000 metric tons of waste, but there is already more waste than would fit, waiting in temporary containers all around the country. More waste, obviously, will accumulate in the decade or more it would take to build the high-tech dump in the desert. 


Meanwhile, the wheels of the nuclear power industry – and the bureaucracy that monitors it – turn, turn, turn and the waste waits. 

Nuclear power is touted as cleaner than other existing means of producing electricity. How clean, exactly, may depend on whether one is talking air or earth. Nuclear generators emit virtually no carbons into the atmosphere because there is no combustion in the process. 


The pellets of uranium that bring heat to the generating process at TMI are relatively tiny. But they are so dangerous that they have to be stored, after use, in lead and concrete containers; there they cool and are kept as they await a more permanent home, like skeletons in need of a closet. The spent pellets are radioactive, which means they will take centuries – about 10,000 years – to degenerate into a state that will no longer cause cell mutation to humans upon exposure. 

In 1982, the federal government took responsibility for providing the nuclear power industry a place to permanently bury the waste from nuclear power plants. Studies showed burial in the earth was the best of a handful of ideas, a conclusion every other nuclear-power producing nation has also come to. 

But no one, any where on the planet, has yet to build a permanent repository for this waste.


Where is the waste waiting? 

Where is the waste waiting? Just look and see. The view of TMI’s cooling towers is striking on a drive down Route 441, a.k.a., River Road. But the towers dominate and distract, as the super-heated water trickles down, and steam rises from two of them. Another two sit idle – the dirty orphans of March 29, 1979. 


But there is more than just cooling towers on the island on the river: There are guard towers, water towers, fences and razor wire, parking lots, and those two mausoleum-like structures – casks – that hold the spent uranium fuel. The pellets are small, but their storage space is big. What takes up the space is layers of protection between those used fuel pellets and: you and me. 


TMI communications director Ralph DeSantis said there is enough room in TMI’s storage casks to contain the plant’s waste through the year 2022. 

He also said that the industry is watching closely to see what happens at Yucca Mountain. Indeed. 


If the application is approved in three years, as allowed, it will then take at least 10 years to ready the mountain for waste reception. That makes 2021 a highly optimistic estimate of when Yucca Mountain could first open. 


A volley of desert fire

It’s been a wicked hot match of political and scientific wills as the waste piles up. In 2002, the Bush Administration recommended Yucca Mountain to Congress as the sole site to be developed as the nation’s nuclear waster repository. Yucca had been discussed and studied for years before this, but urgency had grown along with lawsuits by nuclear power companies over the government’s failure to provide the dump, as the 1982 law required. 


Congress said yes to Yucca, but the state of Nevada vetoed them, calling the selection of the site unconstitutional and a violation of states’ rights. The U.S. Congress then vetoed Nevada’s veto. In September 2007, Nevada shut off water at the Yucca Mountain site to halt DOE research bore hole drilling. The state claimed, and a judge agreed, that the feds could not use the state’s water against Nevada’s wishes. 


Many in Nevada believe the site is unsafe for radioactive waste because of its geology; the mountain is on a fault line. A 5.6 magnitude earthquake shook Little Skull Mountain, 21 miles from Yucca Mountain, in 1992. 


In 2004, a U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Nevada’s challenge to the repository. But the same court also said that a 10,000-year federal EPA safety standard set for the burial of radioactive waste was illegal because it ignored recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy recommended the time-window for safety be much longer; earlier legislation required that EPA standards adhere to those Academy recommendations. 


On Sept. 8, the NRC accepted as complete and ready for review the DOE’s application for a license to start building the repository. Many disagree, saying it is still not clear if the repository is to be built for safe containment of waste for 10,000 years, or 100,000 years or exactly how to ensure safe containment over such a long time, with so many unknowns to consider: namely climate, geology or human interference. 


The NRC has three years to grant or reject the license, with a one-year extension possible. Safety studies have commenced, along with preparation of more challenges from the state of Nevada. The volley is not over. 

But that’s in Nevada, and this is Middletown, Pa.

In Washington, D.C. licenses are pending.

And outside nuclear power plants everywhere, skeletons wait for closets.  




Marlene Lang is a freelance columnist and editor. She was editor of the Press And Journal at the time this story was published. Lang traveled to southwestern Nevada in April 2008 to learn more about Yucca Mountain, the proposed site for placement of radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear power plants and the U.S. military. 

Her column may be read at


This story is posted with permission and thanks to the Press And Journal.