On December 17th, I posted a Department of Energy (DOE) article about a meeting which had just occurred between Energy Secretary Moniz and Native American tribal leaders (you can refer to either my December 17th post or click this link to the DOE’s article: http://energy.gov/articles/secretary-moniz-reaffirms-energy-department-s-commitment-tribal-partnerships). At the time, I wondered what Moniz’ intent was in making this “historic” visit to Arizona to meet with tribal leaders, particularly in light of DOE’s assistance with the Congressional theft of sacred Apache lands located in the Tonto National Forest (also, by the way, in Arizona), giving the previously protected land to a foreign corporation, Rio Tinto, for copper mining. Let’s just say that Moniz is either much braver or even more clueless than I had previously thought.
And then, there was a somewhat out-of-the-blue article on the DOE website on December 12th (link: http://energy.gov/articles/energy-secretary-moniz-announces-formation-nuclear-energy-tribal-working-group) regarding a new program which hoped to link tribal leaders with the Energy Department’s Nuclear Energy Office to work on nuclear energy issues. Here is my annotated version:
Since Native Americans don’t have nuclear weapons (nor do they want them) and they don’t have nuclear reactors, and when considering the Energy Department’s dubious track record of ridiculous projects and non-environmental “friendly” policy, it occurred to me that they may be sort of talking “around” the nuclear waste problem. After a few hours of poking around the internet, bingo! If there is one thing I can rely on for consistency, it’s the Energy Department’s ability to be underhanded and shady, and they did not disappoint. But first, there needs to be a little backstory…
So, get ready for a doozy of a story. And in this case, it is not the big utility companies who are the evil villains. Nope. This time it’s the US government which has left THEM holding the bag (of lethal waste) and entitled THEM to billions of dollars in reparations. How’s that for a change? And I’m explaining this not only for those of us who didn’t know the severity of the mess the American government has gotten us into, but also for the tribal leaders who need to know what they’re dealing with (this time around, at least).
IN THE BEGINNING, there was a Cold War and a mad dash to develop lots and lots of nuclear weapons in a hurry and without thought to what would happen to the by-products of such an ambitious and dangerous endeavor. Indeed, in the 1940’s, as American scientists scrambled feverishly to build nuclear bombs and were left with vats of lethal acid, which had been used to dissolve irradiated nuclear fuel as part of the plutonium separation process, they simply put the liquid in underground steel tanks. Even then, in their haste, they realized that this was a woefully inadequate method of long-term storage and disposal, but in their rush to produce adequate amounts of material to build bombs, the long-term consequences were dismissed as “unimportant,” by the likes of scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer, especially in light of the perceived menace and technical advancement of the enemy, the Soviet Union.
By 1957, the National Academy of Sciences began sounding the alarm that, in fact, it WAS important and the problem of disposal of the burgeoning waste was timely and imperative. They suggested that geological disposal (deep underground storage) in salt deposits was the best plan, and that large numbers of sites in the US must be identified to receive such waste. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began searching for locations and initially settled upon an abandoned salt mine in Lyons, Kansas. During this time, research and development of both the methods of safely transporting such waste, and the mediums in which both low and high level waste would be “suspended” continued unabated. By 1971, state and local opposition to the Kansas site had codified and grown so troublesome that the AEC had to abandon the Lyons site altogether.
Next up came a site in Carlsbad, New Mexico where a facility known as WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) was planned solely to store defense-related, low-level plutonium (known as transuranic, or “TRU”) waste. Congressional approval for the Carlsbad site was given in 1979, however, it took 20 more years for the first shipments to be received in New Mexico due to controversy, logistical and technical difficulties. And given the fact that they recently had a major radiation leak due to using the wrong type of kitty litter (which combusted in tanks), resulting in radiation exposure for a few dozen of its workers, the initial controversy seems warranted, This site did not even address the overall problem of the ever increasing stockpile of all other types of nuclear waste, including such long-lived by-products like Tc-99 (half life of 220,000 years), I-129 (half life of 17 million years), Np-237 (half life of two million years), and Pu-239 (half life of 24,000 years).
Now, fast forward through several American presidencies, each with their own agenda and plan for all this lethal waste that was being produced by not only the Department of Defense but also commercial nuclear reactors and research facilities. During this time (and to this day), the United States, through the unmatched “brilliance” of the Department of Energy, remains committed to an “open fuel cycle” with no spent fuel RE-processing, which means that we just keep making all this radioactive stuff that has absolutely nowhere to go (because no one wants it). Throughout the 1970’s, and with the problem getting more dire with each passing year, the AEC, and later its successor agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) kept up the search for a permanent geologic site to bury this awful goo. Among their various scouting expeditions, they considered salt formations in Michigan, Texas and Utah, salt domes in Louisiana and Mississippi, basalt formations in Hanford and rock formation sites at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
In 1974, India tested a nuclear device which served to heighten US fears about civilian nuclear fuel by-products being diverted to weapons producing areas of the world. And by the end of the 1970’s, states had began scrambling to make sure that wherever all this much talked about waste ended up, it had better NOT be in their backyard. A Department of Energy review panel was formed and began to work on identifying three distinct geographic locations to store the waste in the east, west and probably south, plus several others sites thrown into the mix so that no one felt left out (or safe). Here is a map of some of the early sites:
In 1982, after four years of contentious arguments and reports, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). States were simultaneously and aggressively organizing, both legally and politically, NOT to be selected to “host” a repository site. At the initial creation of the NWPA, it does seem to me, at least, that Congress did everything it could to “spread out” the waste and make the program as fair as possible. They set a limit, or “cap” on how much waste a site could accept, virtually guaranteeing that there would have to be multiple sites (since there was so much collective nuclear waste scattered throughout the country) and they also created a pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) system requiring utility companies to pay the US government a fee of one mill ($0.001) per kilowatt hour of electricity sold from nuclear power plants in EXCHANGE for the government agreeing to accept and permanently dispose of their nuclear waste. Now, this is VERY important, so I’m going to rephrase it:
For roughly the last 30 years, utility companies have had to pay (or else be severely fined) the US government fees which, collectively, total between $750-$800 million dollars PER YEAR, to operate their reactors with the written understanding that the government would haul away their radioactive waste and dispose of it. Keep in mind (and this is key) that utilities passed on THAT expense to the customers, also known as taxpayers, who were using this electricity. Also noteworthy is the fact that the government had absolutely NO way to handle this radioactive waste so, in fact, they did not handle it at all. They left it with the utility companies to deal with. THIS is going to be an epic problem on top of several other epic problems in this epically bad situation.
Stay tuned for Part II…