Fifty years after the U.S. launched a bold plan to invest in nuclear power, most of the promises of clean, inexpensive energy have failed to materialize. Plants often cost far more than projected and took years longer to build — driving up rates for consumers. Many plants were never completed, instead becoming a debt utility companies passed on to ratepayers.
Meanwhile, the direst fears of anti-nuclear activists also have not played out. Although there are rashes of safety incidents, the most serious U.S. incident being the 1979 partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island, there has never been the kind of catastrophe seen at the Chernobyl plant or, more recently, at the Fukushima reactor.
But skeptics say risks are still with us. As reactors age, they are more prone to accidents caused by worn-out parts. In some cases, operating licenses are being renewed far beyond a plant’s planned shelf life, meaning expensive upgrades and extra-vigilant maintenance — things not always tended to by strapped utilities.
Of even greater concern to the nuclear watchdogs: the vast and growing piles of spent nuclear fuel. There is still no known way to store used fuel long-term that guarantees it won’t leak during the tens of thousands of years some components remain radioactive. The 76,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that already have been generated now sit on plant sites across the country, including 379 tons at Oregon's former Trojan Nuclear Plant on the Columbia River an hour north of Portland.
To give that number perspective, if existing radioactive fuel assemblies nationwide were stacked end-to-end and side-by-side, they would stand more than two stories high and cover a football field.
And there is another impact — one that perhaps even the most ardent of anti-nuclear activists did not envision. Across the country, communities expanded and grew dependent on the nuclear plant in their backyards. Now, as many of those plants cut back or are decommissioned, economic vitality is gutted. Jobs and middle-class lifestyles disappear. Housing prices collapse. Tax bases dwindle, undermining everything from school budgets to road repairs.
In the red
Zion, a small Illinois city on the shores of Lake Michigan, has been struggling since 1998, when the Zion Nuclear Power Station was shuttered because of an operator’s mistake that resulted in expensive mechanical failures. Thousands of jobs were lost, skilled plant workers moved away, small businesses collapsed and the town had to find a way to recoup $18 million in annual taxes previously paid by the plant. The burden shifted to property owners.
“Our tax rate has increased by 143 percent since the plant closed,” Zion Finance Director David Knabel says. “With a tax rate that high, you can imagine that it is virtually impossible to attract homeowners and businesses into the town.”
Citrus County, on Florida’s west coast, saw a $4.6 million drop in annual tax revenue when Duke Energy closed Crystal River Nuclear Plant permanently in 2013.
“We lost 600 good-paying jobs,” says Donald Taylor, board president for the Economic Development Authority of Citrus County. “Most of those workers went to other Duke plants, retired or found other jobs. The problem is most left the county.”
Nonprofit organizations, such as the local food bank, boys and girls clubs and United Way, which had relied heavily on donations from plant employees that were matched by Duke, also were hit hard, Taylor says.
In Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Entergy-owned Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station — classified as one of the three worst reactors in the country — is currently running $40 million in the red annually and is set to be shuttered in mid-2019.
The plant contributes about $9 million to Plymouth’s $200 million yearly budget, but local officials are optimistic business is diverse enough to withstand the financial blow when Pilgrim closes.
“We’re fortunate we have tourism,” says state Sen. Viriato “Vinny” deMacedo. “It’s not a one-company town. We have 1 million visitors a year, an incredible coastline and 351 ponds.”
Plymouth may be able to mitigate the financial loss of Pilgrim, but, like other sites of shuttered plants across the country, the town will be left with several hundred tons of nuclear waste in the form of highly radioactive spent fuel.
Spent fuel is nuclear fuel that has been used and removed from the reactor core. The Government Accountability Office calls the hot and highly radioactive stuff one of the most hazardous substances created by humans. Some components stay radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
The country’s nuclear plants are adding about 2,000 metric tons of waste each year to the 76,000 metric tons already sitting at 72 plants across the country.
“If not properly contained or shielded, the intense radioactivity of spent fuel can cause immediate deaths and environmental contamination, and in lower doses can cause long-term health hazards such as cancer,” the accountability office said in a study of spent fuel done in 2012 at the request of Congress.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, Congress mandated that the federal government open a permanent geological storage facility for nuclear waste from civilian facilities and begin accepting waste by 1998. Plans for such a repository at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, ran into heavy opposition and were halted in 2010. To date no alternative has been found.
More than 70 percent of the spent fuel in the U.S. currently remains at reactor sites, squeezed into tightly racked storage pools that were designed for much smaller loads.
Boron panels, which prevent fission from occurring in the fuel pool, are deteriorating at many sites, including at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. To address the problem, operators shift the hottest fuel in the pools away from the degraded panels. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently views the issue as one it will monitor.
Although it does not solve the problem of waste storage in communities across the country, the only way to reduce the danger from spent fuel is to move it to dry casks, mammoth steel-lined concrete structures, says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
At Trojan, these casks hold 790 spent uranium fuel rods that once powered Oregon’s only nuclear plant until it closed in January 1993 after 17 years.
Left with a nuclear 'dump'
Mayor Al Hill says Zion knew what it was signing up for in 1973, when it agreed to host a nuclear power plant: The trade was 267 acres of lakefront property for $18 million in annual revenue. The city did not agree to storing nuclear waste indefinitely.
“We have environmental concerns and everybody in the U.S. should have environmental concerns about these rods being so close to Lake Michigan,” Hill says. “We’re stuck with a nuclear dump.”
In July, U.S. Rep. Robert Dold, an Illinois Republican, filed a bill at the urging of Hill and other regional leaders to pay communities storing the nuclear waste. Under the Stranded Nuclear Waste Accountability Act, Zion, which stores more than 1,000 metric tons of spent fuel, would get about $15 million annually. Congressmen from other host communities have signed on to the bill.
The Department of Energy is working on a plan for consent-based interim storage. Andrews County in West Texas, with a total population of under 15,000, has endorsed a proposal submitted by Waste Control Specialists. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing the company’s application for a facility that would be ready by 2021 to store 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel from closed commercial reactors.
Holtec International is working on an application for a storage site in southeastern New Mexico and expects to submit its proposal to federal regulators by year’s end.
Populations near U.S. reactors, meanwhile, want to know whether their proximity poses a health threat. The NRC hired the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study in 2010 but halted the work last year because of costs, expected to be about $8 million.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has long fought for tighter industry controls, said the agency gambles with the public’s health.
“The NRC blames budgetary constraints for ending the study, but what price do residents pay for living near operating nuclear facilities?” he wrote in a statement. “We should know that answer.”
Plant owners, however, hope to keep lucrative reactors online despite their age. Most already have extended their reactor licenses for another 20 years beyond the initial 40 they were allowed to operate. And at least two already have indicated their intent to go for another extension, which would allow the plants to continue until they are 80 years old. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes the decision on those extension requests.
In a recent study on extending nuclear plant licenses, the Office of Nuclear Energy said the question that must first be answered for the public is “How safe is safe enough?”
“Even with continuous improvements in safety and performance, nuclear power is still perceived by the public as not safe enough,” the report noted. “Nuclear power does involve high-consequence events like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima that are rare but can be catastrophic.”
John Keeley, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an advocacy group for the industry, says “a well-run” nuclear power plant is key to providing the country’s energy and environmental challenges.
“Nuclear energy is by far the largest clean-air energy source and the only one that can produce large amounts of electricity around the clock,” Keeley said.
But Paul Gunter, director of nuclear oversight for Beyond Nuclear, a nationwide group that seeks to educate the public on the dangers of nuclear power, says further license renewals should not even be considered. He calls the current plants “antiquated” and no longer economically viable without government subsidy.
“They’re in a death spiral,” Gunter says. “The question now is how quickly can we retire this industry? How much more nuclear waste are we going to generate before we realize enough is enough?”
— Christine Legere is a reporter for the Cape Cod Times. Follow her on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT.