The Law of Nuclear Waste

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – The Pre-Session Version

“There is a basic law of nuclear waste often overlooked – all waste remains where it is first put.”

– Richard Wilson Riley, Then Governor of South Carolina, 1982*

This little bit of southern frankness from South Carolina happened to find its way into Minnesota history when it was quoted by administrative law judge Allen W. Klien in his opinion advising the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to reject Northern States Power’s (NSP, now Xcel Energy) petition to store nuclear waste at the Prairie Island nuclear plant in April 1992.  One of NSP’s central arguments was that storage outside of Prairie Island would only be temporary.  It appears that former Governor Riley’s “Law of Nuclear Waste” was truer than the predictions of the high-priced experts hired by NSP who claimed back in the 1992 at the administrative hearings that the waste would be removed by 2010.

By the way, it is still there and still causing problems.

The issue of long-term storage of extremely dangerous nuclear waste from our state’s two nuclear reactors in temporary casks took center stage at a hearing before the House Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday of this week.  The Committee had an informational hearing on HF2440, authored by the Committee’s chair Rep. Joe Atkins (DFL-Inver Grove Heights).  The bill proposes to interject the State of Minnesota in the long-standing dispute Xcel has with the federal government regarding their promise to collect spent nuclear fuel and permanently store it in a secure underground repository.  The federal government contracted to start picking up the waste beginning in1998.

As a result of the federal government’s breach of promise to collect nuclear waste, Xcel was forced to store this highly radioactive material in “dry casks” at its two nuclear reactors in Monticello and Prairie Island.  The sad reality is that Minnesota citizens as ratepayers to Xcel have been paying and continue to pay millions of dollars to the federal government for the purpose of collecting this waste.  Rep. Atkins put it quite simply when he asked, “If you all had a garbage man that didn’t show up for 28 years, would you continue to pay the bill?”  His legislation would do exactly that – require Xcel to stop paying the bill to the federal government to develop a national nuclear repository and require the money to be deposited instead in a state fund managed by a new Minnesota Nuclear Waste Storage Commission.  That Commission would be charged with developing a strategy for the long-term storage of high-level radioactive waste from the state’s nuclear reactors.

Not only has the garbage man not come in the last 28 years, it is indicated he probably will not come for another hundred years.  U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently announced that waste generated by America’s 104 nuclear reactors can be stored safely on-site for the next 100 years. The Department of Energy has put in place plans to permanently shut down the program to make Yucca Mountain a national repository, without any plans to look for an alternative site.  This was a complete 180 degree turn from the position taken by Chu back in March of last year where he promised a panel to explore permanent storage of US nuclear waste.  He even stated then, as far as Yucca went, America “could do better.”  No such panel has been created.  Apparently Chu thinks doing better on nuclear waste is to ignore the problem for a hundred years and leave it to our great-grandchildren to worry about.

If the federal government’s attitude is to ignore the problem, maybe Rep. Atkins has a good point that we should go it alone.  Unfortunately, his bill only gives lip service to finding a permanent repository for the over 2000 tons of nuclear waste which will be generated by our two reactors by the time the present permits expire.  It appears that the intent of the Commission is only to support efforts by local units of government to be first responders to a disaster and their responsibility to provide security for these facilities.  Such efforts need to be funded but ignore the permanent solution.  It appears that the local cities are using this effort to highlight a dispute they have with Xcel over the amount of property taxes the utility is paying to local units of government.  Xcel has been quite successful in past tax bills in reducing their overall property tax liability going to local units of government.  It used to be that cities wanted to have power plants within their property tax base because they used to provide a nice little boost to the local government coffers.  Unfortunately, with the changes in tax law secured by utilities and the new heightened concerns of terrorist attacks, the cities of Red Wing and Monticello are now forced to manage security for these highly toxic waste sites with less revenue.

Xcel indicated that Minnesota ratepayers are paying $13 million annually to the federal government for waste removal and storage.  We have paid over $386 million over the life of our nuclear reactors for the same.  Xcel claims that they will be successful in litigation to recover most of this payment because the federal government signed a contract to take the waste.  So our federal government goes into further debt so our grandchildren can pay higher taxes for our inability to manage our nuclear waste.  I for one, as an Xcel customer, would like them to either return my money or actually use the money to permanently dispose of this waste.

Therefore, a sensible improvement on this legislation would be to force Xcel to provide permanent secure underground storage away from the open air dry cask storage platforms along the Mississippi River.   This radioactive waste has a decaying “half-life” of 24,000 years and it takes 10 of those “half-lives” before the waste is no longer dangerous.  The casks our nuclear waste is presently stored in at over 500 degrees only have a design life of 25 years.  Minnesota has several large ancient granite formations that would be ideal for storing this waste.  If Minnesotans were truly stewards of our resources, we would not leave this waste unsecured for future generations to deal with.  We have been the ones who have enjoyed the benefits of this electricity, and we should take responsibility for its safe disposal.

Interestingly, former South Carolina Governor Richard Wilson Riley, who gave us the frank and honest assessment of nuclear waste storage, was most famous as an education reformer.  He was extremely popular in his home state due in large part to significant education reforms.  He was so popular with the people of South Carolina that they amended their constitution to allow him to serve a second term.  (A decision they’re probably regretting after the second term of current South Carolina Governor “Argentine Playboy” Sanford.)  Riley was later appointed by President Clinton to serve as the Secretary of Education.  He has been considered one of the most effective cabinet members in our nation’s history.

I wonder how former Secretary of Education Riley would grade the stupidity of actually wanting to build more nuclear reactors to create more nuclear waste that we have no place to safely store.  I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the champion of improved educational standards would give a dunce hat to anybody so stupid as to think we need new nuclear reactors when we have not figured out how to dispose of the first four decades of waste we’ve already created.  I’m sure no one would be that stupid . . . or would they?

*Cited from the findings of the Minnesota administrative law Judge Klien, 4-10-92 on the dry cask storage at Prairie Island.

John’s Update to the Update:

Who knew we had so much pull to get the Secretary of Energy to finally adopt the blue ribbon commission on nuclear energy?  Just released today by the Department of Energy was the announcement of a new commission to look at nuclear energy and its waste management.  Hopefully they will be more successful than the nearly 50 years it took the Department of Energy to decide on and then kill Yucca Mountain. Here’s a link to the announcement:

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