Consolidating nuclear wastes won't end spent-fuel problem, group warns
Greg Gordon,
Star Tribune
June 24, 2002

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Even if a Nevada mountain site is turned into a nuclear waste repository and filled to capacity by the year 2038, at least 30 nuclear power plants are likely to have even more spent fuel on site than they do now, an environmental group said Sunday.

Other plants still would have sizable stores of highly radioactive waste on site, including Xcel Energy Inc.'s twin-reactor Prairie Island facility near Red Wing, Minn., which would have 344 metric tons, 51 percent of its current total, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Ken Cook, the group's president, said its analysis of U.S. Energy Department data shows that administration officials "have not leveled with the public, including the news media" in pushing for the repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a way to consolidate deadly waste from 131 sites and therefore reduce the risk of terrorism.

"They're claiming that it's better to have the waste at one location -- Yucca Mountain -- than scattered all over the country, and that's a false framing of the issue," Cook said. "At all of the operating reactors, there will still be waste."

Officials of the Energy Department, the nuclear industry and Xcel did not dispute the group's figures but said the Yucca site would dramatically improve the nation's management of the waste, which takes 10,000 years to decay.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said creating a national disposal site would allow removal of all waste from 10 closed nuclear plants, from nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers and from nuclear weapons plants. Besides, he said, Congress can enlarge Yucca's 70,000-metric ton capacity.

Xcel's Prairie Island plant is due in the year 2007 to become the first nuclear plant in the nation to run out of space for its waste. Its problem could be eased if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses a temporary disposal site on a Utah Indian reservation for spent fuel from Xcel and seven other utilities.

Yucca's future hinges on a Senate vote next month on whether to authorize the Energy Department to seek a license for a permanent disposal facility at the remote ridge 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. President Bush authorized a license application in February, but Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn vetoed the decision, a right he was granted under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

The law gave Congress 90 legislative days -- in this case until July 25 -- to override his veto. The House voted to override in May. The Senate vote is expected to be close.

Minnesota Democratic Sens. Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton have said they are undecided. Both have expressed concern about shipping the material across the country.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has warned that without the site, the waste will remain scattered in 39 states, where "161 million people live within 75 miles of one or more nuclear waste sites, all of which were intended to be temporary."

Abraham has cited national security in his licensing recommendation, and Davis says the repository will reduce terrorism risks.

The Environmental Working Group argues, however, that waste will remain at all operating commercial plants and that shipping it by rail or truck could raise terrorism risks without ridding plants of the waste.

The group has introduced a Web site -- -- that allows people to type in an address and find out how close it is to routes being considered for rail or truck shipment of the nuclear waste to Yucca. Possible routes include a rail line that runs through St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Brian Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, contributed $200,000 toward the cost of the Web site. Cook said his group takes no position on nuclear power and just wants an honest debate.

Xcel's director of nuclear asset management, Scott Northard, said the Yucca repository remains the best way for the government to catch up with contractual commitments to accept the industry's waste by 1998. He said opening the site also would enable many plants to avoid the predicament of Prairie Island and more than a dozen other facilities, which have exhausted space for their spent fuel in cooling pools and resorted to storing waste in costly above-ground casks. If Yucca opens, Northard said, "we would ship enough to empty out the dry storage pad and to open up space in the pool so we can efficiently operate the plant."

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