High Costs and Risks of Nuclear Waste

by Mike Manetas

Spent nuclear fuel stored on-site in dry storage casks at the Humboldt Bay power plant. File photo.
Spent nuclear fuel stored on-site in dry storage casks at the Humboldt Bay power plant. File photo.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a public hearing in Eureka on August 26 to gather input and ideas on formulating a policy for creating Community Advisory Boards (CABs) to monitor decommissioning activities at nuclear sites across the nation. Members of our local CAB, set up 20 years ago by PG&E, not only supplied useful information at the hearing, but also brought up the elephant in the room—what will happen to the six casks of high-level spent fuel that is stored on the bluff adjacent to Humboldt Bay?

After 10 years of complex dismantling and shipping off of some 16,000 truckloads of radioactively contaminated metal, concrete, soil, and other debris from the former Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant, the $1+ billion decommissioning project is nearly complete. The last step is to finish the final site restorations needed to bring it into California environmental compliance.

However, PG&E holds the amended nuclear license, requiring it to monitor and safeguard the dry casks in the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI), located on site about 150 feet from Humboldt Bay. The license was for 40 years. PG&E will continue gathering monthly payments from ratepayers to pay the $10-15 million per year storage bill for at least the next 10 years. What will happen after that is unknown, since there are currently no viable solutions to the extremely long-term needs of safeguarding high-level nuclear waste. The half-life of the waste stored in these casks is 24,000 years.

As was stated by both PG&E and the NRC at the meeting, legally it is the Department of Energy (DOE)’s problem. Mandated by Congress in 1982, the DOE was to take ownership and possession of all the waste fuel and place it in a deep geologic repository by 1998. That deadline came and went without any suitable solution for the the tens of thousands of tons of high-level wastes in the U.S.

DOE has spent $15 billion trying to develop Yucca Mountain for deep burial, but it remains a contentious location. Although the nuclear industry blames political issues, Yucca Mountain (or in reality, any other site) is unrealistic due to the enormous technological challenges of dealing with the heat-emitting radioactivity of the fuel, and the huge cost estimates for extremely long-term storage. In addition, the site is large enough to store only a fraction of the high-level nuclear waste that currently exists in the U.S.

Thus, the spent fuel from the defunct Humboldt Bay reactor sits in dry casks in a concrete bunker right next to Humboldt Bay, under the guardianship of PG&E, with no other alternative in sight. The site, however, is threatened by sea level rise.

The next phase of the decommissioning process is figuring out what to do with this very complex and challenging issue going forward. The CAB, the local community, and the public in general will need to consider available options and address many questions that currently have no answers. How long can we expect these casks to safely contain this waste, when their expected life-span is only about 40-50 years (and 10 years are already gone)? What happens if there is a failure, due to the technology, earthquakes, a tsunami, the increasing impacts of climate change on sea level rise and site integrity, or other unknown factors? Who pays for all this—ratepayers, taxpayers, PG&E, the nuclear industry?

With PG&E currently in bankruptcy, who is in charge?  Will it sell the license to a private company (as has recently occurred with several other nuclear sites in the U.S.), risking corporate gamesmanship and incompetence?  How does our situation here on Humboldt Bay factor into the much bigger challenges of decommissioning PG&E’s Diablo Canyon reactors and its spent fuel?  What about California’s other decommissioning sites at San Onofre and Rancho Seco?  How do the lessons learned in California relate to the 110 reactor sites across the nation?

These complex issues and questions will be debated in the political, technological, economic, and social arena for many years to come. It will take committed citizen action to continue to monitor and fight the powerful nuclear industry, which today still touts the same hoaxes that it has for decades (cheap, affordable, necessary, carbon-free energy). Nuclear power advocates are increasingly found within the climate action movement. However, the true costs and incredible challenges of nuclear waste management and potential long-term consequences of a failure to deal with waste adequately—not only from reactors, but across the entire nuclear industry—are nowhere to be found in pro-nuclear propaganda.

Mike Manetas has been on Humboldt’s local CAB since it began in 1998. 

Editor’s note: Meanwhile, across the Pacific, operators of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that suffered a triple meltdown in 2011 state they are running out of storage space for contaminated water, used to cool the damaged reactors. Technology does not yet exist to fully remove all radioactive isotopes from the over 1 million tons of water. The site will be out of storage space by 2022, but the only known solution is to drain the water into the ocean. Experts also still don’t know how to address the melted nuclear fuel, which breached containment and remains in the reactor basements, contaminating groundwater. 

In Russia, 33 years after the worst nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl site finally has new steel and concrete shell covering the original hastily-built “sarcophagus.” The new containment shell, designed to last 100 years, was built because the original sarcophagus was in danger of collapse. It is estimated to take until 2065 to complete the dismantling of the sarcophagus and, eventually, the reactor structures.