The Land of Lincoln is the country’s largest de facto nuclear waste dump.
Under a federal measure passed 30 years ago, the spent fuel from America’s nuclear reactors is supposed to be permanently buried out in the Mojave Desert, tucked deep under a mountain, far from any population center and easily guarded.
In reality, though, that radioactive waste – tens of thousands of tons of it – is sitting in temporary storage at dozens of current and former nuclear power sites all over the country, as it has been for decades. The largest portion of it is divided among seven sites that dot the nation’s fifth-largest state: Illinois.
The story of how the Land of Lincoln became the nation’s biggest de facto nuclear waste dump is a tale of public fear, political pragmatism and the power of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).
It’s a story that radiates political irony. Among those responsible for Illinois’ atomic dilemma is the state’s favorite son, Barack Obama, who scuttled a decades-old project that was to have created a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
It is perhaps fitting that Illinois is the epicenter of the American nuclear power industry today, given that the Atomic Era started here. In December 1942, at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard created the first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
That breakthrough, previously hypothesized from the work of Albert Einstein and others, would speed the end of World War II three years later, would hang ominously over the ensuing decades of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, and would ultimately light the computer screen on which you’re reading this.
Today, Illinois is home to six operational nuclear power sites, at Braidwood, Clinton, Cordova, LaSalle County, Morris and Ogle County. Together they operate 11 nuclear reactors currently in use, more than any other state.
The radioactive spent nuclear fuel from those reactors has remained in ostensibly temporary storage at each of Illinois’ operational sites – and at the now-shuttered Zion nuclear power plant on Lake Michigan – for years, as the federal government has failed to carry out its self-appointed responsibility to permanently dispose of it.
A revived Yucca Mountain project could change that. But not everyone believes it’s the answer to Illinois’ problem.
Kraft’s group does favor the general concept behind the Yucca Mountain proposal — “deep geological permanent disposal” of nuclear waste — but argues that the chosen Nevada site is dangerously unsuitable.
To a broader point, Kraft cites the whole nuclear waste debate itself as further proof of what he claims is an untenable power source going forward. “Illinois has more nuclear generation than anyone else. We get all the benefits, but now we don’t want (the waste) in our backyard.”
The uranium fuel eventually loses its effectiveness in the nuclear reaction, and has to be replaced. The removed, “spent” fuel rods will continue to be dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. In addition to the health and environmental hazards, the waste contains materials that, in the wrong hands, could be weaponized. This stuff can’t just go into a dumpster.
Ten “years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem (a unit of radiation) /hour — far greater than the fatal whole-body dose for humans of about 500 rem,” explains a 2015 report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission outlining the state of America’s nuclear waste issue.
The best solution, experts concluded decades ago, is to build a remote, impenetrable national repository where America’s nuclear waste could be consolidated and contained, monitored and guarded in one place, essentially forever.
Conversely, the most dangerous situation, it is generally agreed, would be to allow that waste to simply remain on site where it was produced, at dozens of nuclear plants around the country — many of them near population centers, each one requiring endless vigilance, each one a potential environmental disaster or terrorist target.
And yet that’s exactly where we are today.
Over the decades, U.S. nuclear reactors have produced some 79,000 metric tons of radioactive waste, a figure that grows by more than 2,000 metric tons every year. Most of it has remained in temporary storage in the same roughly 70 sites in more than 30 states where it was used, for the simple fact that there is nowhere else to put it. More than 10,000 tons of it resides in Illinois.
The Chicago-area plant on the shore of Lake Michigan shut down permanently after an operator-error mishap in 1997. Twenty years later, its spent nuclear waste still is stored on site because of the lack of a national repository for it.
Read more and listen to the program at Illinois Issues: The Prairie State’s Nuclear Waste Conundrum