Nuclear waste and environmental justice via C-10 Research and Education Foundation

As an organization concerned with the health and safety of people and the natural environment, C-10 understands that the wellbeing of our own community and the energy generated to support our regional economy is inextricably linked to the people and places affected by the entire life cycle of nuclear power. This cycle includes mining and processing, transport, and ultimately the storage of waste that will be deadly toxic for a million years, or more.

C-10 is deeply troubled that waste from energy generated to power the New England economy could end up poisoning under-represented indigenous and minority populations far away. With decades of waste pilling up, communities in other regions of the country are being asked to shoulder an unfair burden.

An unending and toxic legacy

The legacy of nuclear waste is terrifying to contemplate. All generation of nuclear power results in toxic waste products, some of which have short half-lives and quickly decay into materials such as lead. Other compounds will be hazardous to living creatures for millions of years. Uranium 239 has a half life of 240,000 years; Uranium 238’s half life is 4.5 billion years. Neptunium – 237’s halflife is 2 million years, and Iodine-129’s is 17 million years.

These elements can be present in both high-level and low-level radioactive waste, and are created both by nuclear weapons production and by nuclear energy reactors. The US Government Accounting Office states that our nation has generated 80,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste from nuclear energy reactors, and 90 millions gallons of high level radioactive waste from nuclear weapons. That’s a lot of waste—and the figure does not include low-level waste.

Nuclear waste will continue to emit radioactivity harmful to humans and the environment for longer than we can contemplate. While we can hope that facilities for storing nuclear waste will prevent most of us from direct exposure to these poisons, it is difficult to imagine human-built structures that will never crack or leak radioactivity into the water or the environment; some of the waste storage casks are designed to last for 100 years; the numbers just don’t add up.

According to the NRC’s Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste, “High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, 10 years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour—far greater than the fatal whole-body dose for humans of about 500 rem received all at once. If isotopes from these high-level wastes get into groundwater or rivers, they may enter food chains. The dose produced through this indirect exposure would be much smaller than a direct-exposure dose, but a much larger population could be exposed.”

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Feds push forward with “interim” storage

The federal government’s recent decision to build a repository for high-level waste on Western Shoshone land is in violation of treaty protections and was made without consent from the people, or the state.

This plan also runs counter to a 1994 executive order by President Bill Clinton. President Clinton issued the order requiring federal agencies to consider environmental justice issues when issuing permits for new polluting facilities. Although, as an independent agency, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was exempt from the order, then-Chairman Ivan Selin committed the NRC to implementing it.

The state of New Mexico has sued the NRC over its waste disposal plan. In his complaint, New Mexico’s Attorney General Hector Balderas outlined the risks his state’s citizens would face if the facilities are built. “I am taking legal action because I want to mitigate dangers to our environment and to other energy sectors,” he said in a statement. “It is fundamentally unfair for our residents to bear the risks of open ended uncertainty.” Read more in this C-10 blog from May 2020.

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The NRC has been reviewing these proposals, and has already greenlighted the west Texas proposal. Both of these proposals would involve moving the nation’s high-level waste by shipping it by rail and on trucks to sites in western Texas and New Mexico, to Shoshone lands.  

The dangers created by shipping high-level radioactive materials across the nation on our roadways and railroads is clear. These “solutions” place our nation’s waste on lands of poorer and more vulnerable citizens. Indigenous communities in the Southwest have suffered repeated exposures to radioactivity from uranium mining and as downwinders of the nation’s nuclear testing grounds.

To put high level waste generated at Seabrook Station to meet New England’s energy needs onto Native land in the Southwest would put these communities at further risk of exposure and long-term health effects. Our nation has a well-established pattern of making our more vulnerable and less powerful citizens face unacceptable environmental pollution and suffer its effects.

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The need for consent-based siting

C-10 believes that nuclear waste should stay in the states in which it is created and should be stored in suitable locations with consent of the communities likely to be affected. Proposed host communities must clearly understand the risks associated with exposure to radioactivity, the storage facilities, and their rights.

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Consent-Based Siting requires those of us who use nuclear energy to take responsibility for its by-products. This also forces all of us to face the dangers we allow as the price of our energy consumption. It is the right thing to do.

Read more.

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