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Storage Hazards Ignored

Updated: Aug 23

Tragically – last Tuesday, the Lebanese capital of Beirut was rocked by a horrific and massive explosion of what is believed to have been a large quantity of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse for some six years at that city’s downtown seaport. It appears that at least 150 people were killed in the blast, thousands more were injured, and massive sections of the city destroyed. From what we read, concerns had been raised repeatedly over the years about the presence of the stored material, but nothing was done to facilitate removal or disposal of the ammonium nitrate – resulting in the tragedy.

Now - what is storage? It is infrastructure. What was destroyed? People and infrastructure of all types. So, it seems to us that an immediate question that this catastrophe should raise in everyone’s minds is: what’s lurking in our own storage infrastructure that might pose a similar “hiding in plain view” threat to people and infrastructure? We had better think deeply about this right now. Beirut is paying the price for its “leaders” not thinking about this issue and kicking-the-can-down-the-road for someone else to address. Moreover, if we cannot even address one of the glaring, long-standing and obvious threats, nuclear waste, about which we and our leaders have been warned repeatedly, what chance do we have?

Concern about nuclear waste disposal has been on the table for 50 years. The government issues regular reports and Congress, experts, and affected communities debate what to do about it. Distressingly, as in Beirut, we get no action, only talk, and then the “drawering” of the problem that is deemed to be just too hard to solve. In the meantime, our nuclear waste remains smoldering in storage – in plain view – across the country.

According to the US General Accountability Office (GAO), “the United States has some 94,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that requires disposal”, most of that (some 80,000 tons) is generated by the commercial power industry as spent fuel that poses extremely serious risks to humans and the environment. Another 14,000 tons accounts for the rest of the inventory and has been generated by the government’s nuclear weapons program as a combination of both high-level waste and spent fuel. This is about 30% of the world’s total high-level waste (HLW). Generally, in the US, the waste is stored where it is generated, and that currently means at 80 sites in 35 states. The amount of radioactive waste is expected to increase from 90,000 to 140,000 metric tons over the next “several decades” according to the US-Department of Energy (DOE). The graphic below is from the DOE and the GAO report and shows the distribution of storage sites holding both high level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel across the US.

However, these are all ‘temporary’ storage sites – where spent fuel is either contained in spent-fuel pools or in above-ground dry cask storage -- and after decades of effort and the expenditure of billions of dollars, there is still no nuclear waste disposal site in the United States.[1] This on-site storage means that the spent-fuel pools and dry cast storage are indeed located on the power plant sites themselves. A 2011 CBS news story using 2010 US Census Bureau data stated that the number of people living within the 10-mile emergency planning zones around the 65 operating nuclear power plants in the US rose by 17% in 10 years, to over 4-million people. At that same time, just under 1-million people lived within a mere 5 miles of the plants, and over 18.5 million people lived within 20 miles of the plants

Most of us are aware of the saga surrounding the US efforts to license and build a permanent waste repository for spent fuel and high-level waste. That effort extends back some 38-years, to passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, selection of the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent nuclear waste repository in 1987, years of study and submission by DOE in 2008 of an NRC license application to construct a permanent geological repository, multiple course corrections and local community opposition, and finally, in 2010, DOE’s termination of its Yucca Mountain licensing efforts. Further attempts to revive siting efforts have been made, but as of today there is no permanent storage site in the US for radioactive nuclear waste, and our rather substantial stockpiles of material continue to reside in temporary pools and above-ground storage at 80 sites around the country.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace and a host of other scientists, environmentalists and experts have expressed their concerns about the vulnerability to terrorist and other attack of the spent fuel pools and above-ground storage, as well as the risks of radiation leakage and overheating of the pools as a result of natural disasters and other events. Others, including nuclear industry associations call these concerns into question citing a host of reasons why the industry has fairly effectively responded to these matters. But the reality is that, with the failure of the Yucca Mountain effort, the US has no permanent nuclear waste disposal plan and this dangerous material continues to reside in temporary, above ground storage that is not regarded as an adequate ultimate solution.

We are not in the business of criticizing nuclear energy and some of us have sent much time in that industry. But when we think about what can happen – and the tragedy that has engulfed Beirut because so-called “leaders” looked the other way rather than confronting the problem right inside their city storage locker, we have to keep in mind that this a wake-up for us all regarding dangerous substances and dangerous and failing infrastructure of all kinds. How many potential disasters like the Beirut disaster are there out there? Who knows about them, who is responsible, to whom have they been reported, and what is being done about them? Nuclear waste is obvious and should immediately come to mind. But this is a big question we should all be asking.

[1] For full disclosure, one of our Principals is on the advisory board of a start-up nuclear waste disposal company. This Musing, however, is not intended to promote any specific technology – merely to point out one aspect of the “storage of hazardous materials” challenge.

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