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60,000 tons of dangerous radioactive waste sits on Great Lakes shores via Detroit Free Press

THE EFFECTS OF A WORST-CASE SCENARIO — FROM A NATURAL DISASTER TO TERRORISM — COULD CAUSE UNTHINKABLE CONSEQUENCES FOR THE GREAT LAKES REGION.

More than 60,000tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel is stored on the shores of four of the five Great Lakes — in some cases, mere yards from the waterline — in still-growing stockpiles.

“It’s actually the most dangerous waste produced by any industry in the history of the Earth,” said Gordon Edwards, president of the nonprofit Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

The spent nuclear fuel is partly from 15 current or former U.S. nuclear power plants, including four in Michigan, that have generated it over the past 50 years or more. But most of the volume stored along the Great Lakes, more than 50,000 tons, comes from Canadian nuclear facilities, where nuclear power is far more prevalent. 

[…]

The nuclear power industry and its federal regulator, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, point to spent nuclear fuel’s safe on-site storage over decades. But the remote possibility of a worst-case scenario release — from a natural disaster, a major accident, or an act of terrorism — could cause unthinkable consequences for the Great Lakes region. 

Scientific research has shown a radioactive cloud from a spent fuel pool fire would span hundreds of miles, and force the evacuation of millions of residents in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto or other population centers, depending on where the accident occurred and wind patterns.

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Spent nuclear fuel is so dangerous that, a decade removed from a nuclear reactor, its radioactivity would still be 20 times the level that would kill a person exposed to it. Some radioactive byproducts of nuclear power generation remain a health or environmental hazard for tens of thousands of years. And even typically harmless radioactive isotopes that are easily blocked by skin or clothing can become extremely toxic if even small amounts are breathed in, eaten or drank,  making their potential contamination of the Great Lakes — the drinking water supply to 40 million people — the connected Mississippi River and the prime agricultural areas of the U.S. a potentially frightening prospect.

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Meanwhile, spent nuclear fuel, vastly more radioactive, sits not far from the shores of  four Great Lakes — Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario — at 15 currently operating or former nuclear power plant sites on the U.S. side. In Michigan, that includes Fermi 2; the Donald C. Cook nuclear plant in Berrien County; the Palisades nuclear plant in Van Buren County, and the former Big Rock Point nuclear plant in Charlevoix County, which ceased operation in 1997 and where now only casks of spent nuclear fuel remain.

Neither the U.S. nor the Canadian government has constructed a central collection site for the spent nuclear fuel. It’s not just a problem in the Great Lakes region — more than 88,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, an amount that is rising, is stored at 121 U.S. locations across 39 states.

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Wet and dry

Spent nuclear fuel isn’t only radioactive, it continues to generate heat. It requires storage in pools with circulating water for typically five years before it can be moved into so-called dry-cask storage — concrete-and-steel obelisks where spent fuel rods receive continued cooling by circulating air.

In practice, however, because of the high costs associated with transferring waste from wet pools to dry casks, nuclear plants have kept decades worth of spent fuel in wet storage. Plant officials instead “re-rack” the pools, reconfiguring them to add more and more spent fuel, well beyond the capacities for which the pools were originally designed.

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The reference is to the worst nuclear power disaster in world history, the April 1986 reactor explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union, now a part of the Ukraine, where 4,000 to 90,000 are estimated to have died as a result of the radiation released. A study by the University of Exeter in Great Britain, released this June, found that cow’s milk from farms about 125 miles from the Chernobyl accident site still — more than 30 years later —- contains the radioactive element cesium at levels considered unsafe for adults and at more than seven times the limit unsafe for children.

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Not surprisingly, Nevada fought back. The legal and political battle went on for more than a decade. The 1998 deadline for a repository came and went. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy under President Barack Obama ended its pursuit of a Yucca Mountain repository, amid pressure from powerful Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, who became Senate majority leader in 2007.

By 2014, having paid more than $39.8 billion in fees to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Fund, with no promised central repository taking away their still-rising stockpiles of spent fuel, nuclear utilities sued the federal government, and won a series of settlements.

“Every day, the taxpayers of America are paying $2.2 million for keeping this spent nuclear fuel on nuclear power plant sites — over $800 million a year,” McCullum said. 

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Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or kmatheny@freepress.com. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.

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