40,000+ Tons Of Deadly
Radioactive Waste
Continues Piling Up
By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Every day, more than six tons of dangerous nuclear waste pile up at power plants around the country " more than 2,000 tons a year. The spent reactor fuel, highly radioactive for the next 10,000 years, has long been the nuclear industry's most vexing problem.
And as it inexorably accumulates, a major dispute has developed over whether the government should remove close to 40,000 tons of used nuclear fuel from 72 power stations and keep it at a central location.
Utilities say the government should haul away the deadly garbage and are seeking billions of dollars in damages because of federal inaction.
Now a federal judge has said that in three breach-of-contract cases involving three closed New England reactors, the government is liable for monetary damages for failing to dispose of the reactor waste.
"The government made commitments with these utilities, entered into contracts to take the waste and accepted their money. Now the government has welched on the commitment,'' says Jerry Stouck, the attorney representing the three New England plant operators.
Stouck's clients are asking for $268 million in damages, although the courts must still determine how much the government will pay. Operators of seven other reactors are asking for more than $4 billion in damages, and dozens of other utilities are waiting to file court claims.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, claims that if the lawsuits succeed, the government could be liable for as much as $56 billion. Energy Department officials scoff at the figure but acknowledge millions could be at stake.
"This is more than simply a promise. This is a binding legal contract,'' says Robert Bishop, general counsel for the Nuclear Energy Institute. Electricity users so far have contributed nearly $15 billion in fees to a federal nuclear waste fund without assurances that the material will be disposed of, the utilities argue.
Last year, a federal court ruled that the government need not take the waste until it has a safe place to put it, but it also gave a green light for utilities to seek monetary damages from the Energy Department for the breach of contract. The Supreme Court recently let stand that decision, and so far 10 utilities, including the owners of the three closed reactors in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut have done so.
The squabble over reactor waste - nearly 40,000 tons already at 72 power plants in 34 states - also is being fought out in Congress.
In 1982, Congress assured utilities that the government would find a central storage site for spent reactor fuel and begin accepting the waste by 1998. The deadline passed last January with the waste still at the bottom of cooling pools - or, in a few cases, dry cask storage - at reactor sites.
In each of the last three years, attempts have been made in Congress to build a temporary government storage facility in the Nevada desert, where the government hopes to eventually bury the waste deep beneath Yucca Mountain, 90 miles north of Las Vegas.
But deep-seeded opposition by Nevadans has stymied the congressional effort each time, with another attempt expected early next year.
The Clinton administration has argued the waste should remain where it is until a decision is made on a permanent burial site at Yucca Mountain. And the Nevada project - which could begin taking waste as early as 2010 if the site is found geologically suitable - itself has not been given the final go-ahead.
The Energy Department is to announce, probably before Christmas, whether it plans to go ahead with the program.
A firm decision on whether to use the Nevada location won't be made until 2001, when the president must officially determine if the site is geologically suitable to entomb as much as 80,000 tons of nuclear material that will remain deadly for 10,000 years.
"There's no way to keep the waste isolated because it's such a long time,'' argues Auke Piersma, a nuclear energy policy analyst for the environmetal/consumer group Public Citizen. And critics fear a "mobile Chernobyl'' incident if thousands of tons of nuclear material is shipped by rail and highway across the country to a Nevada disposal site.
Utility executives argue nuclear materials already are shipped safely and that with time, new technologies will be developed to deal with the waste issue. After all, they note, originally the idea was to reprocess used reactor fuel. But that approach was abandoned by the United States in the 1970s because of concerns about nuclear proliferation.