The Great Lakes and a High-Level Radioactive Nuke Waste Dump Don’t Mix
By Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear
As if the Great Lakes didn’t have enough nuclear nightmares to deal with, now the Wisconsin state legislature is poised to repeal a 33-year-old ban on new atomic reactor construction. The most likely outcome of overturning the nuclear power plant moratorium is not a boom in construction jobs, nor high-tech riches, as the bill’s sponsors tout. Rather, as Al Gedicks of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council warns, the legislation risks returning northern Wisconsin’s granite geology to the very top of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) target list for a national high-level radioactive waste dump.
The 14,000-year-old Great Lakes, formed by the melting glaciers of the last Ice Age, serve as the drinking water supply for 40 million people in eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and a large number of Native American First Nations. They are the lifeblood of one of the world’s largest bi-national, bioregional economies.
And they are but a single radioactive catastrophe removed from ruination forevermore. Here’s how Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer of Fairewinds Energy Education, put it in a recent blog post, Downstream:
Imagine the 39-year-old Bruce station on Lake Huron or the 44-year-old Palisades plant in Michigan on Lake Michigan having a meltdown like Fukushima Daiichi did in March 2011. The concentration of radioactive waste in the water would be roughly 30,000 times higher in the Great Lakes than in the Pacific Ocean after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi. Think of the devastation that would occur as 40,000,000 people lose their water supply and the crops along these waterways are contaminated with nuclear waste for decades if not hundreds of years as the St. Lawrence River flows right past Montreal and Quebec City. What are the commercial ramifications for cities along the Great Lakes or the St. Lawrence River when ocean freighters choose to no longer travel there for fear of contaminating the vessels?
Indeed, the toxic algae drinking water ban for just a few days in the greater Toledo, Ohio area in summer 2014, and the current national headlines about the severely hazardous lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water supply (and its apparently many months-long cover up), show clearly how precious—and fragile—potable water is, even in the heart of the Great Lakes, comprising 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water and 21 percent of the entire planet’s.
Gundersen serves as expert witness for an environmental coalition challenging continued operations at Palisades, due to its severe, and worsening, reactor pressure vessel (RPV) embrittlement, due to more than four decades of neutron radiation bombardment. A pressurized thermal shock could, like a hot glass under cold water (and under more than a ton of pressure per square inch!), fracture the RPV. A Loss-of-Coolant-Accident would follow, and then likely a reactor core meltdown, and the potential for a catastrophic release of hazardous radioactivity.
According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (see point #4, on page 5 of 15 of the PDF counter) Palisades is the second worst embrittled RPV in the U.S., after Point Beach Unit 2 in Wisconsin—thus wedging Lake Michigan between two of the most risky, age-degraded atomic reactors in the country.
How foolish it has been for the nuclear power establishment in industry and government to locate a dozen still operating atomic reactors on the U.S. shores of the Great Lakes, and another 18 on the Canada side. In fact, the world’s single largest collection of inter-connected freshwater seas most unfortunately hosts facilities representing every single stage of the uranium fuel chain. (See the “Great Lakes Region Nuclear Hotspots” map, by Anna Tilman of International Institute of Concern for Public Health, for an overview).
The “front end” of the uranium monster has already ravaged the Great Lakes. The mines and mills of Elliot Lake, Ontario, which were retired nearly 20 years ago, after a half-century of polluting exploitation, are still the largest source of hazardous radium flow into the Great Lakes. And, whether to fuel domestic reactors or to export to the U.S. and overseas, Canada’s “radioactive Love Canal,” picturesque but badly contaminated Port Hope, on the Lake Ontario shore east of Toronto, processes every atom of uranium mined in Canada, including from the world’s most productive mines in northern Saskatchewan. (See Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility’s “Nuclear Map of Canada,” by Dr. Gordon Edwards and Robert Del Tredichi).
— Onaman Collective (@OnamanCollectiv) December 16, 2015
Now, the dreaded “back end” of the uranium fuel chain is also showing up with a vengeance—proposed radioactive waste dumps on the very shores of the Great Lakes.
In Kincardine, Ontario on Lake Huron, just to the east of the tip of Michigan’s “Thumb,” Canada’s new Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, will decide by March 1 whether or not Ontario Power Generation (OPG) will be allowed to proceed with dumping the province’s so-called “low” and “intermediate” level radioactive wastes, from 20 reactors, within less than a mile from the shoreline.
The targeted site is Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, with more reactors (nine in total, eight still operable) than any other atomic plant on Earth. For more than 15 years, a U.S./Canadian Native American First Nations grassroots resistance movement has been battling against this insane scheme, and has been joined in recent years by a bipartisan coalition of state legislators and U.S. congress members, extending from Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes states. Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump has collected more than 92,300 petition signatures, and helped generate more than 180 resolutions, representing municipalities from Chicago to Toronto, with a combined population of nearly 23 million, in opposition to the dump. OPG calls the proposal the DGR, short for Deep Geologic Repository. The late David Martin of Greenpeace Canada dubbed it the Deep Underground Dump instead, or, aptly, DUD for short!
Granted, irradiated nuclear fuel has piled up at atomic reactors on the Great Lakes shores for decades. Even at more than a half-dozen permanently closed, and otherwise entirely dismantled, beach-side commercial reactors in Illinois, Michigan, Ontario and Wisconsin, highly radioactive fuel rods, with nowhere else to go, remain stored, either indoors, in “wet” pools, or outdoors, in dry casks, silos of concrete and/or steel. Many thousands of tons of perhaps the most deadly substance humans have ever created, will likely stay right where they are at, for decades or centuries to come, despite the ever-worsening, potentially catastrophic risks of corrosion and leakage.
Neil Young’s line “Rust never sleeps” could just as well apply to the forever-deadly byproduct of atomic reactors. And James Raymond’s lyrics—about the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada high-level radioactive waste dump—nail it too, in the song “Don’t Dig Here” performed by David Crosby and Graham Nash: “there’s much to fear” and “so much danger” from this radioactive “shit that kills.”
DOE, in its 2002 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Yucca dump proposal, warned that abandonment of irradiated nuclear fuel at reactor sites would eventually lead to catastrophic radioactivity releases into the environment, if dry casks were simply allowed to fail over time.
Nowhere could the consequences be worse than on the edge of the fresh drinking water supplies of our country, including the Great Lakes, as Don’t Waste Michigan founder, the late Dr. Mary Sinclair, warned two decades ago.
When confronted by John LaForge of Nukewatch Wisconsin, DUD proponents confirmed that, given the dilution factor of the Great Lakes, all of Ontario’s buried radioactive wastes could leak, and doses downstream would still be “acceptable.” In words and deeds, the late Dr. Rosalie Bertell of International Institute of Concern for Public Health made clear that “dilution is not the solution to radioactive pollution!” Michael Keegan of Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes has called the notion that “dilution is the solution” a delusion.
(By the way, LaForge penned a cleverly-titled op-ed in the Madison, Wisconsin Cap Times, Nuclear power might be safe or cheap, but never safe and cheap. In it, he quoted at length from hearing testimony presented by Gedicks of Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, a warning entirely ignored by the assembly members who voted unanimously in favor of repealing the reactor construction moratorium).
Which brings us back to Wisconsin. In 2003, 2007 and 2010, nuclear industry lobbyists and their supporters in the state legislature attempted to repeal a ban on new atomic reactors. The moratorium, passed after the Three Mile Island meltdown of 1979, is a common-sense safeguard, requiring that, before new reactors can be built in Wisconsin: (1) a federal high-level radioactive waste repository with room for Wisconsin’s irradiated nuclear fuel must exist, and (2) any proposed new reactor cannot be a burden on ratepayers’ pocketbooks (in other words, it must be cost-competition compared to other sources of electricity).
In more than three decades, the nuclear power industry has failed those two basic tests. In fact, in 2013, Wisconsin’s Kewaunee atomic reactor on Lake Michigan was forced to permanently shutdown when it could not compete with cheaper sources of electricity, despite just having gotten a Nuclear Regulatory Commission rubber-stamp for a 20-year license extension.
Environmental and public interest groups, such as Nukewatch and Wisconsin’s Physicians for Social Responsibility chapter, were able to fend off those three previous attempts to repeal the new reactor ban. But the pro-nuclear lobby is back yet again.
As reported by President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in its January 2012 final report:
Efforts to establish a formal legal link between the use of nuclear power and solutions for the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle began in California in the mid-1970s when it became clear that the prospects for successfully completing either reprocessing capacity or a waste disposal system were increasingly dim.
At that time, the California legislature adopted a law that allows the state to grant permits for new nuclear power plants only if the California Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission can make a finding that the federal government has identified and approved a demonstrated technology for the disposal of spent fuel/high-level nuclear waste. The California law was challenged on grounds that federal law preempts state statutes concerning nuclear power, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court, which found that California had acted on the basis of an economic rather than a nuclear regulatory rationale.
Subsequently, eight other states—Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin—adopted statutes that tied approval of new reactors to (at a minimum) progress on the issue of waste disposal. Recent years have seen efforts to repeal those laws in some states, although none have succeeded so far.
The Wisconsin repeal legislation, Assembly Bill (AB) 384, and its companion, Senate Bill (SB) 288, could start a domino effect, if the nuclear lobbyists get their way. The bills were introduced last October. Lead sponsor Rep. Kevin Petersen has been joined by 32 fellow Wisconsin State Assembly Republican Representatives as co-sponsors. Republicans Lasee and Wanggaard are leading the charge in the State Senate.
On Dec. 14, the State Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities passed AB384 by a vote of 13 Ayes to 0 Noes. The unanimous support included five Democrats.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign points out that “banning new nuke plants has generally been a Democratic cause for decades.”
But in its analysis, The Money Behind Dem Support to Dump the Nuke Plant Moratorium, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports:
The measure … is backed by utilities, labor unions, the business community and the rightwing ideological group, Americans for Prosperity. The bill is opposed by environmentalists and a utility watchdog.
The opponents, who deserve our thanks, encouragement and support, include Citizens Utility Board, Clean Wisconsin, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Sierra Club John Muir Chapter and Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.
In addition to pro-nuclear unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Koch Brothers, the federally taxpayer funded University of Wisconsin-Madison Nuclear Engineering Department should also be mentioned. Illusory “Small Modular Reactors” (SMRs), also seeking massive public subsidies, appear to be the nuclear will-o’-the- wisp du jour.
(Dr. Michael Corradini, a UW-Madison nuclear engineering professor, and also a member of the largely rubber-stamp advisory committee on Reactor Safeguards at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has long been an ambitious, high profile nuclear industry proponent. But he was forced to summarily resign his appointment by George W. Bush as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board a decade ago, when it was revealed he had written a number of biased op-eds promoting the Yucca Mountain dump, that had little to do with sound science, and everything to do with raw politics.)
Wisconsin Utility Investors, Inc., beating the drum against the new reactor ban and for SMRs in Wisconsin, quoted a Wall Street Journal article, saying:
“The first [SMR] units likely would be built adjacent to existing nuclear plants, many of which were originally permitted to have two to four units but usually have only one or two. Down the road, utilities could replace existing coal-fired power plants with small reactors in order to take advantage of sites already served by transmission lines and, in some cases, needed for grid support. Like any other power plants, these small reactors could be easily hooked up to the power grid.”
The incorrigible current and former nuclear utilities behind Wisconsin Utility Investors, Inc., such as Xcel Energy and WEC Energy Group, neglected to mention that some of these “existing nuclear plants” in Wisconsin, with which they are or have been closely associated, have been permanently shut down due to the inability to compete in electricity markets, including Dairyland’s Genoa reactor in LaCrosse and Kewaunee on Lake Michigan.
Groups like Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and PSR showed, more than five years ago, that SMRs are no solution for the cost, safety, and waste problems of nuclear power.
Explaining the five Democratic votes of support on the State Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported:
Contributions to current Democratic lawmakers from the utility industry, and from the electrical, carpentry, plumbing and other trades whose unions support the bill, totaled about $510,000 between January 2011 and June 2015, including about $31,000 to the five Democrats on the Assembly committee who voted for the bill.
Those Democrats and their contributions were:
• Rep. Robb Kahl of Monona: about $11,900, including nearly $6,200 from trades unions and about $5,700 from utilities
• Rep. Josh Zepnick of Milwaukee: $7,400, including $4,100 from trades unions and $3,300 from utilities
• Rep. Eric Genrich of Green Bay: $5,550, including $4,750 from trades unions and $800 from utilities
• Rep. Melissa Sargent of Madison: $3,200, including $2,450 from trades unions and $750 from utilities
• Rep. Amanda Stuck of Appleton: $3,000, all from trades unions
To investigative journalist and long-time nuclear power watchdog Greg Palast’s line “the best democracy money can buy,” could be added: “boy, do they sell out cheap!”
The nuclear power lobby exercises huge, corrupting influence not only at the state level, but also at the federal level.
This despite efforts to out the industry’s PR campaigns, as by Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy SourceWatch exposés on the nuclear industry front group Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. And efforts going back decades, by the likes of Nukewatch, Beyond Nuclear, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Nuclear Energy Information Service and others to provide anti-nuclear information tables and workshops at the annual Midwest Renewable Energy Association fair, the largest grassroots renewable energy festival in the country.
— Scott Stapf (@stapf) December 5, 2015
On Jan. 13, AB384 was passed by the full Wisconsin State Assembly, by voice vote. Although the assembly is controlled by a 63 to 36 margin by Republicans, and certain Democrats spoke out strongly and opposed the measure, a recorded vote was not taken. Thus, there is no clear record regarding how individual Assembly members voted. This lack of transparency and accountability is another example of the nuclear power industry lobbyists’ stranglehold on our democracy.
The action now moves to the Wisconsin State Senate. It was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy on Jan. 15.
But even if passed into state law, the repeal of the new reactor ban in Wisconsin will most likely not lead to new nuclear construction projects—unless massive taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies are deployed, as has built past generations of reactors. And the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with IEER and PSR, above, that “Small Isn’t Always Beautiful,” and that even SMRs still have safety, security, and cost concerns.
Blinded by nuclear dollar signs, Wisconsin state legislators supporting AB384 and SB288 appear oblivious to how it all could easily backfire. In the 1980s, northern Wisconsin’s granite geology was at the very top of DOE’s “eastern site search” for a national high-level radioactive waste dump. Geologic formations like the Wolf River Batholith and Puritan Pluton were specifically targeted. Now that the Obama administration has wisely cancelled the dangerous Yucca dump proposal, DOE can be expected to return to places like Wisconsin, in search of a dump, as made clear in a 2008 report (see Figure 3, on page 12, or 16 of 20 on the PDF counter).
In fact, DOE currently has a stealth experiment in deep borehole disposal for highly radioactive waste, targeted at granite geology.
Perhaps the only thing more crazy than proposing to dump radioactive waste in granite formations in the Great Lakes Basin, is OPG’s proposal to dump radioactive waste in a water-soluble limestone formation on the edge of Lake Huron. A bi-national environmental coalition has called on the Canadian federal and Ontario provincial governments to block the insanely risky scheme.
Well, okay, the nuclear establishment can come up with some real doozeys. As reported by President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, in its Final Report in January 2012. In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report, The Disposal of Radioactive Waste on Land, that looked specifically at the question of nuclear waste disposal. That report reached several conclusions, among them that “radioactive waste can be disposed of safely in a variety of ways and at a large number of sites in the United States” and that geologic disposal in salt deposits represents “the most promising method of disposal.” (pages 19-20 or 41-42 of 180 on PDF counter. Internal citations omitted).
Dusting off that 59-year-old report (written the same year the first “civilian”—it was built by Admiral Hyman Rickover’s nuclear Navy—reactor was fired up, at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, on the Beaver River near the Ohio line) reveals that the high-level radioactive waste form being discussed was not solid irradiated fuel rods, but rather even more difficult to contain, post-reprocessing (plutonium and/or uranium extraction and “recycling”) liquids. And salt formations under Detroit, in the heart of the Great Lakes, were being considered.
Keegan of Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes confirms that Walter J. McCarthy, CEO and Chairman of Detroit Edison, was pushing high-level radioactive waste disposal under Detroit as late as the mid-1980s. This, from the company that brought us the “We Almost Lost Detroit” Fermi 1 meltdown 50 years ago Oct. 6, 2016, as well as the ongoing Fermi 2 fiasco (a super-sized General Electric Mark I boiling water reactor, as big as Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 and 2 put together).
Good thing NAS and McCarthy didn’t prevail. Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of IEER, unearthed recent NRC admissions that the thermal heat of commercial irradiated nuclear fuel makes salt disposal inappropriate. It could even cause collapse of engineered disposal caverns. The Valentine’s Day, 2014 transuranic contamination atmospheric release, due to a burial barrel burst, at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, shows how serious the risks are.
Although used for “low” level radioactive waste disposal in Germany, the Morsleben salt dome is at risk of collapse; Asse II has so flooded with corrosive brine, that the radioactive wastes must now be removed, at huge risk and expense, lest they escape into the environment.
What can you do?
Take action against these radioactive risks to the Great Lakes. Email the Canadian Prime Minister <Justin.Trudeau@parl.gc.ca> and Environment Minister <Catherine.McKenna@parl.gc.ca>, and urge rejection of OPG’s DUD. Contact your own U.S. Representative and Senators, urging support for the bipartisan, bicameral “Stop Nuclear Waste by Our Lakes Act.” Contact President Obama and urge he activate the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the DGR proposal.
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