Nuclear waste powers disposal struggle
Written by Detroit News   
Monday, 25 December 2006 16:18

With no end in sight for the opening of a proposed communal dump in Nevada to permanently store the nation's nuclear waste, Michigan's radioactive waste is piling up -- a costly and perplexing legacy of the reliable generator of electricity that residents have depended on since 1962.

It's also a costly and perplexing legacy for the environmentally sensitive Great Lakes basin, where 31 reactors are near lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, producing waste that must be stored on site for now.

Like the United States, Canada is searching for a permanent community dump site for high-level waste. But a proposal unfolding in Ontario to build a permanent underground repository less than a mile from Lake Huron to store low and intermediate radioactive waste -- such as contaminated mops, clothes and tools -- from all of the provinces' nuclear plants is being fought by a Michigan congressman who fears a leak could make its way into Lake Huron, creating a nightmare throughout the Great Lakes region.

"It's a technology that they pushed forward without resolving what to do with the end product -- the nuclear waste. It's like building a house without a toilet," said Michael Keegan of the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes.

Michigan has four operating commercial reactors at three sites that daily add to the nation's as-yet unresolved problem of long-term storage of waste, the radioactive leftovers from reactors that no longer produce economically viable energy, but are so hazardous that they will have to be stored safely for 1 million years.

And Detroit Edison, the owner of the Fermi 2 Power Plant, is considering building a new nuclear plant to meet the state's electricity needs.

But even the state's closed commercial facility -- Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant near Charlevoix -- is sparking controversy because of its remaining radioactive waste.

A local conservancy and the state's natural resources agency would like to buy a huge scenic and pristine stretch of land along Lake Michigan where the Big Rock plant once operated and turn it into a public park. Critics vow to stop it, charging that the eight 20-foot-tall casks of radioactive material on the property threaten the health of humans, wildlife and Lake Michigan.

Of the four sites in Michigan that have or are producing nuclear energy commercially, Big Rock Point and Palisades near South Haven have outdoor casks storing radioactive waste.

The two other facilities -- Cook, with two reactors in Bridgman, and Fermi 2 in Newport -- have been able to keep radioactive spent fuel in indoor cooling and shielding pools adjacent to the reactors. But Cook and Fermi 2 are running out of space in the pools and will have to build outdoor storage in the next few years in order to keep operating.

U.S. entices plant builders

Michigan gets about 13 percent of its energy from nuclear plants, although most -- more than 75 percent -- of Cook's production goes to Indiana.

Meanwhile, as the nation's energy needs soar, the federal government is trying to entice companies to start building new nuclear plants.

The energy bill signed by President Bush last year provides loan incentives, tax credits and federal risk insurance for builders of new nuclear plants. No nuclear plants have been built in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

But even without new plants, more than 100 facilities around the country are waiting for a permanent burial site for their waste. Ten sites with 13 reactors -- in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and New York -- are along the U.S. side of the Great Lakes.

Ontario has 20 reactors and proposes more.

The sprawling Bruce nuclear facility, 150 miles northeast of Detroit, wants to build a huge repository for low- to intermediate-level radioactive waste less than a mile from Lake Huron. In addition to storing its own lower-level wastes, Bruce would take the lower-level waste of the Pickering and Darlington plants.

Concerned about potential leaks, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, a supporter of nuclear power generally, is trying to stop the repository in Kincardine.

"How foolhardy to have this on the shores of Lake Huron," said Stupak, who is in line to lead the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight in the next Congress and hopes to hold hearings on the Bruce proposal. "How do you clean up (nuclear contamination) in water?"

Michigan nuclear site owners are exasperated by how long it's taking the federal government to take over the waste.

A huge fight is under way over the sole site being studied as the nation's potential permanent dump -- Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Questions have been raised about whether Yucca Mountain has two of the characteristics needed for long-term storage to work -- being geologically stable and dry.

The Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate means that Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, a longtime opponent of having the national dump at Yucca Mountain, will become Senate majority leader, giving him huge levers to delay or even derail it.

"Who knows when Yucca Mountain will be ready?" said Mark Savage, spokesman for Nuclear Management Co., which operates the Palisades plant.

"The waste sits here, and the operators have to maintain its safety and security. We're doing that, but the federal government really has shirked its responsibility."

Even if Yucca Mountain works out, the most rosy projection for when it could open is 2017. And once it or an alternative site opens, Michigan's waste will be in line with all the other states that are just as anxious to get rid of their waste piling up at commercial power plants.

In the meantime, Michigan and the other Great Lakes states have to wait, though storage casks are built to safely store waste for 100 years
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