By Ben Taylor
Mar. 23, 2011
BOSTON — Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is calling on the federal government to help find alternative storage for spent fuel rods at the state's Pilgrim nuclear plant and Vermont's Yankee plant.
The storage and security of fuel rods is one of the issues at the heart of the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan — and Coakley says the rods at Pilgrim and Yankee pose more danger than the federal government has been willing to acknowledge in the past.
These rods, having been used in nuclear reactors, are presently stored in pools of water at these two plants — a mechanism similar to how active rods are used. The problem, according to Coakley, is that in the event of a natural disaster these storage tanks can crack, possibly causing fires and releasing radiation, similar to what happened recently at the Daiichi plant in Japan.
In an interview with WGBH's The Emily Rooney show, Coakley said the government and businesses need to be investigating dry forms of storage. She is worried for the densely populated areas that surround a plant like Pilgrim, which is located in Plymouth County. “The federal government has been telling us for a long time that the risk is insignificant,” she said. “What’s also been concerning is that they haven’t been very transparent about why they reached that conclusion.”
All the parties involved know that the spent rods can’t stay on-site forever, but efforts to relocate them have been halting and impractical. Nuclear companies have been paying into a fund for the federal government to put towards a long-term solution since 1983, which has by now accumulated $24 billion. The Department of Energy determined in 2009 that relocating it to the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada was not a feasible plan.
“So we don’t have either a short-term-long-term or long-term-long-term plan for what to do with the spent fuel,” Coakley said. “Everybody recognizes that these things can’t and shouldn’t stay, you know, on site forever. So we need to move on this.”
She is now similarly hoping to force federal agencies to act. The state has sued the NRC on rule-making complaints multiple times since 2006, but has been unsuccessful thus far. The state government is nearly out of options at the federal level, but Coakley sees an opportunity in that President Obama has recently directed the NRC to reassess the risk of these storage methods.
At this moment of renewed national focus, Coakley thinks that Massachusetts may finally be recognized for its past efforts, and that the state’s concerns may finally be vindicated. “We’ve been saying this for a long time,” she said. “(The NRC) need to look at this in light of what happened in Japan, and they need to be transparent about what their determinations are.”
Certain plants around the country have developed safer procedures for their spent fuel rods, which at Seabrook, in New Hampshire, for instance, are stored underground. But dry storage is more expensive, which has been the industry’s argument against adopting it.
Coakley thinks the NRC may be nearly as intransigent and opaque as the industry. The chairman, Gregory Jaczko, says post-9/11 safety checks have made nuclear plants especially safe. But Coakley says terrorism is just one consideration. As the earthquake in Japan demonstrated, a natural disaster could be just as devastating.
“We’re on the coast, we’re not impervious to earthquakes. There are plenty of nuclear power plants in California. You have to put them into the calculus of what the risks are,” she said.
Her concern is that the NRC is focused too narrowly on the benefits of nuclear power and the sense that it will be integral to future U.S. energy policy. “The federal government gets a little removed from what the risks are and the damages are, actually, on the ground,” she said.
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