Alpha-numerics are scary. Trump makes fear of MS 13, a criminal gang known for its violence, motivate opposition to immigrants. Progressives make fear of uranium (U235) and plutonium (Pu239) motivate opposition to the transportation and storage of spent fuel. Yet the factual record is clear on injury, death, or damage: the public has little to fear from MS 13; the public has less to fear from the transportation and storage of spent fuel containing U235and Pu239.
New Mexico is not considering relocating MS 13 members to New Mexico and housing them here; it is considering a proposal for transporting spent fuel and storing it at a repository in the southeastern part of the state. Progressives, environmentalists, and anti-nuclear groups—overlapping groups of over-ardent advocates—are trying to rouse citizens who have an unreasonable fear of anything associated with radioactivity against this proposal.
The state’s leading Progressive environmentalist legislator, Senator Jeff Steinborn, is trying to scare people. He knows that the proposal is in the early stages of a multi-year licensing process. To prejudice its deliberation, he made many requests for information to the Martinez administration, which he knew might be unable to fulfill them, not to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which he knew would make the information available to the public. The purpose of his premature and misdirected requests was to suggest that the state is hiding something and thereby cast suspicion on the proposal even before its details are disclosed and can be discussed.
Progressive media sympathizers are already ramping up the rhetoric. For example, Peter Goodman has already expressed his views in the Las Cruces Sun-Newspress and on KRWG. His comments to serve the anti-nuclear cause and this anti-transport-and-storage campaign show signs of deficient knowledge and biased thinking. I responded in a Sun-Newsguest column and a website comment but believe that another better informed and balanced response can help advance reasonable discussion. I base this response on my experience as a consultant for some twenty years on many aspects of nuclear power, including safety, health, and environmental issues. In particular, I consulted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on its assessment of the Department of Energy’s submission on a waste confidence hearing and on its nuclear safety goals in the 1980s.
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Ever since the advent of commercial nuclear power in 1957, its opponents have fought it with fear-mongering based on four undeniable facts. One, the public fears nuclear energy because of its enormous destructive power, forever symbolized by its first use in atomic bombs. Two, it fears nuclear energy, whether for military or peaceful purposes (many wrongly believe that nuclear power plants can explode like atomic bombs), because it is a mysterious but powerful force understood and controlled by only a small number of scientists and engineers. Three, it fears radioactivity because it knows that exposure to high levels of radiation endangers health and life, directly or, through contaminated water, soils, or food, indirectly. Four, it fears radioactivity because it is threat which it cannot naturally detect or against which it cannot easily defend itself.
The irrelevance of these facts about fears confronts the reality of the safety, health, and environmental record of transporting and storing commercial nuclear wastes, from low-level radioactive medical waste to high-level radioactive spent fuel, for well over half a century. That record is unblemished: no one in the public has been identified as harmed, killed, or sickened from storing or transporting spent fuel, and no waters or lands along tracks or roads, or off-site from repositories have been closed to the public because of radioactive contamination. Since the public has not been exposed, it has not been endangered. Workers transporting spent fuel or storing it are exposed to higher than normal background doses of radiation, but their health risks are small. Opponents of commercial nuclear power, although they try to scare people about its risks, do not deny this record; indeed, they say nothing about it. (In this context, fears about the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant, the “China syndrome” meltdown of a reactor core at one unit at Three Mile Island, have been unfulfilled. No hydrogen explosion occurred, and small radioactive releases had no detectable short- or long-term health effects on the public near to or far from the plant.)
The reasons for this record should be reassuring. Concerns about transporting and storing spent fuel have prompted studies of the risks of accidents, releases, or terrorist attacks on rail or road shipments or at surface or subsurface repositories to ensure that they are not realized in actual effects. In turn, these studies have prompted research, policies, regulations, and programs to protect citizens from hazards and the environment from harm. The result is that scientists, engineers, managers, and technically oriented public officials have addressed and abated these risks for decades. Having done a good job thus far, they are likely to do a better job in the future, over even longer periods.
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Notwithstanding, opponents of the proposal for a commercial spent-fuel repository in southeastern New Mexico raise objections, a few of which need to be addressed.
Some opponents refer to the safety, health, and environmental dangers near Hanford, Washington, as if that one-of-a-kind situation at that plutonium production site bears any resemblance to the situation at a spent fuel storage site. The differences illuminate the irrelevancy of that comparison and its use for fear-mongering. The Hanford site was a military facility for producing plutonium for atomic bombs from the middle of World War II until the end of the Cold War. In that period, the site stressed production and slighted the management, treatment, and storage of wastes. The result was a complex, enormous mess: its shoddy storage of radioactive waste and its leaks of air- and water-borne radioactive contaminants remain the country’s greatest cleanup challenge. But there is no comparison between the major, long-term, no-one-knows-what-kind of stuff leaks on and off this site, and some minor, on-site leakage and minor cleanup at spent-fuel storage facilities.
Opponents object to the proposed repository in the state on the additional grounds of its location, the risks from surface transportation, its likely long-term use despite it “temporary” designation, its design, and its vulnerability to terrorist threat.
The objection based on location is mostly a variation of the NIMBY (not in my back yard) objection, although the site is in a relatively remote, sparsely populated area. The question is why spent fuel stored cannot remain at their power plant sites, not collected at one dedicated site. The answer is that such distributed storage is riskier and more expensive than concentrated storage. Current on-site storage facilities are nearer population centers, older, more prone to leaks, less secure against natural disasters, more vulnerable to terrorist attack, and more expensive because of repairs, upgrades, and diseconomies of scale.
The risks from transportation are negligible. Trains and trucks containing military and civilian radioactive wastes have traveled along tracks and over roads, near large cities and through small towns for decades. Despite the occasional derailment or accident, they have caused no waste-related injuries, deaths, health problems, or environmental harm. There has been no terrorist attack on any of these vehicles. (By contrast, the risks of transporting fossil fuels are common and continuing or recurrent risks to safety, health, and the environment. Train derailments, truck accidents, ruptured pipelines, and storage facility defects cause explosions and fires of oil, gas, and other petroleum-based chemicals, some toxic.).
Whatever length of time a “temporary” designation refers to—the repository may end up being long-term, if not permanent—, storage requirements will satisfy the standards for safety, health, and the environment from the beginning of service and will be updated to lower or prevent risks and to provide for remediation. (By contrast, the safety, health, and the environment consequences of leaking or collapsing holding ponds of coal slurries, and air- and water-borne dispersal of radioactive materials and toxic metals from coal fly ash used as landfill receive almost no attention.)
The 30-foot cap over the repository is adequate for both radiation containment and repository protection. More depends on the containment pit and the spent fuel containers: geologic and hydrologic factors affecting site stability and integrity; the kinds of materials enclosing the containment pit; their design and engineering; the casket materials and designs; the methods for inventorying, locating, and monitoring caskets.
A terrorist attack on the site is unlikely to occur, much less succeed in damaging the repository, disrupting its operations, or destroying or dispersing its contents. Sensors, physical barriers, and other security features will detect, hinder, or prevent attacks by munition-bearing planes, drones, or vehicles; or unauthorized armed or weaponized people. However, media coverage of a terrorist attack, though unsuccessful, could create hysteria in this corner of the state.
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My primary concerns with nuclear power are not technical, but managerial and financial. My advice would be for the public and opponents to avoid double-standards to the transportation and storage of spent fuel and to focus on management issues, particularly the prompt and full disclosure of risk-related matters, and the availability of sufficient resources and the commitment to use them immediately if need be. I trust the NRC, not the state government, to concern itself with the risks, but neither to ensure that the contractor, Holtec International, conducts itself like a good and responsible neighbor. Opponents should also try to secure, if possible, formal arrangements for legal standing should an adverse event occur and Holtec International default on its commitments.