The Manhattan Project and America’s resulting Nuclear Age have left a long and complicated legacy that the country will be dealing with for centuries to come.
Much of that legacy is buried deep underground at facilities across the country. How we finally dispose of the tons of nuclear waste currently lying dormant in our military facilities and science labs is one of the most pressing – and long-term – environmental issues facing the country.
The Trump Administration has settled on one way of dealing with America’s nuclear waste: re-classifying much of it so that it won’t have to be disposed of as quickly. It’s a plan that could save the country tens of billions of dollars.
However, the plan is drawing concern and criticism from environmental groups and political officials in states where the waste is stored. And the larger question remains unchanged: how will the US find a viable long-term solution to the nuclear waste problem?
The Current Situation
A nuclear reactor uses radioactive fuel – and a series of miniature fission reactions – to produce electricity. After about three years, this fuel – which takes the form of rods – grows inefficient and cost ineffective, so it is then removed from the reactor. These spent fuel rods are not benign, harmless garbage and cannot simply be tossed away.
What happens to the waste next depends on how it is categorized. High-level waste is the most dangerous and poses the greatest long-term threat. High-level waste is a byproduct of the small nuclear fission reactions that take place inside a reactor. As the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says, high-level waste is “still thermally hot, highly radioactive and potentially harmful.”
Most high-level waste is stored in spent fuel pools. These pools are filled with water, and serve to restrain the temperature of the radioactive waste. After a period of time, the spent fuel rods are removed from the pools and stored in dry casks.
There are storage sites across the country, but the most contaminated site in the country is in Washington state. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation played a crucial role in the country’s World War Two-era nuclear build-up, as it produced much of the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Hanford “went on to make most of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal,” according to NBC.
What the Trump Administration is Proposing
Essentially, the Trump Administration is looking to re-classify much of the nation’s existing high-level waste as low-level waste. Traditionally, low-level waste is material that has been contaminated through exposure to neutron radiation – the NRC uses contaminated mops, shoe covers and other miscellaneous items as examples of low-level waste.
The administration says the step could save taxpayers up to $40 billion. The re-classified material could spend more time in on-site storage before being removed and transported to a more secure central location.
Why Critics Are Concerned
Environmentalists and local politicians have reacted to the proposal with skepticism.
The situation at Hanford, for example, is already rather difficult. The tanks where the facility stores its waste have been leaking for decades, and the government has spent more than $2 billion a year cleaning up the site since the 1980’s. Watchdog groups in the area say that the proposal would simply allow Hanford and other storage facilities to keep formerly high-level waste in the ground indefinitely.
Elected officials in the Pacific Northwest have also expressed concern. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, prevailed upon the Department of Energy to extend the public comment period for the new rule to January 9. But the DOE can make the change without Congressional approval.
American nuclear waste policy has been in a state of limbo for decades. The country still has no central repository for the long-term (as in thousands of years) storage of high-level nuclear waste. A long-standing proposal to store such waste at a repository deep in the Yucca Mountains in Nevada remains stalled by unyielding opposition from Nevadans and their elected officials.
Whatever regulatory shuffling the Trump Administration – or any future presidential administration – engages in, the country will need some permanent solution to a problem that will exist for thousands of years to come.