Decommissioning Our Nuclear Power Stations: Mission Impossible?

Review by Caroline Phillips, Fairewinds Administrator

As most of you, our followers and viewers, know, Fairewinds Energy Education has real concerns about nuclear waste abandonment as nuclear corporations begin the process of decommissioning and dismantling nuclear power plants. Sponsored by the Lintilhac Foundation, Fairewinds issued a major report about decommissioning Vermont Yankee in March 2015.  Beyond Nuclear, Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance, and Vermont Citizens Action Network invited Fairewinds Energy Education to speak at the United States premiere of Decommissioning Our Nuclear Power Stations: Mission Impossible? in Montpelier, VT, Wednesday, June 3rd.

I attended this Arte France documentary production that examines the ongoing decommissioning process of shutdown nuclear reactors in France, Germany, and the United States. The film is frightening as it shows the harrowing reality of how unprepared the nuclear industry and governments throughout the world are to decommission and dismantle these nuclear power plants that are aged beyond operational safety regulations, and no longer economically viable.

 Nuclear waste remains highly radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years.

Accurately researched, this Arte France documentary makes it apparent that 40-years ago, the designers of these nuclear reactors had no idea how to safely break down and dispose of the highly radioactive material and waste produced while in operation.  Most disturbingly, no progress has been made in determining how to protect such waste for the necessary 250,000 years required.

 Director Bernard Nicolas takes his audience to the failed German nuclear waste abandonment site, Asse, where engineers experimented with salt mine storage to contain nuclear waste. In 2004, the Asse site suffered ground movement and water seeped into the salt mines causing the walls to collapse. Radiation is now escaping from this failed site and workers are racing against time to inject concrete into the collapsed areas to stifle the radiation leak before the walls move again.

 Another failed attempt at nuclear waste containment in France used asphalt to trap toxic contaminants. This resulted in the release of hydrogen fumes that now present a high risk of explosion should it meet with oxygen. Currently, experts cannot and do not agree on what is the best method for nuclear waste disposal. It does not exist.

 Next, the film takes us to Maine to the former Maine Yankee nuclear site and what the industry has declared an “Interim Storage Facility for Spent Nuclear Fuel (ISFSI)”. Once an operational power plant, Maine Yankee shut down due to safety problems that were too expensive to fix.

  Safety issues continue at Maine Yankee as dry casks full of highly radioactive spent fuel sit on-site in the open air without a final resting place and no existing options for final disposal. A few weeks ago, Fairewinds caught the Nuclear Regulatory Commission involved first hand in the cover up of a retracted event report citing an unidentified drone flyover of Maine Yankee. The abandoned nuclear waste at Maine Yankee is expensive and exposed to potential terrorist attack and cask degradation as it sits on-site indefinitely.

 Finally, the film looks at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in southern Vermont. Shut down in December of 2014, Vermont Yankee is facing imminent decommissioning and entering a potential era of waste abandonment and faulty storage.

 By examining previously decommissioned nuclear plants all over the world, we learn from Nicolas’ video, from start to finish the decommissioning process is full of safety gaps and risk. No longer operational and productive, utility companies are not quick to begin the expensive task of safe decommissioning and lack the incentive to take the proper safety measures necessary to handle radioactive waste.

 This leads to a major issue of generational transfer of risk. Not only is this highly toxic, radioactive waste passed down from generation to generation without a proper solution for disposal but the physical dismantlement of nuclear sites takes decades for completion with the weighty transfer of responsibility passed on to workers without proper experience and knowledge.

 Currently, Vermont Yankee utility owner Entergy has promised 60-years of decommissioning oversight. Fairewinds has pointed out that the number 60 has no basis in science and is a very arbitrary number, but without going into that too much, let’s look at the fact that in 60-years many of us will no longer be around. Already, Entergy has transplanted Vermont Yankee workers to other nuclear sites around the country, stripping VY of staff familiar with the site, its surroundings, and equipment. It is safe to say that within the 60-year time frame, an even newer set of workers will take over decommissioning work with even less familiarity of how the plant was originally operated, where the plant’s weaknesses lie, and overall knowledge of quirks particular to Vermont Yankee.

 The handling of radioactive waste is not to be taken lightly, the very fact that the world has no solution as to how to contain and dispose of this toxic material is proof that extra care, extra effort, and complete competence is necessary during decommissioning and dismantlement of a nuclear power plant.

 So, where does that leave us? It’s clear that nuclear power is not a safe or economical energy solution and the world does not need more radioactive waste hanging around; we have enough of that already. More and more nuclear reactors are facing shutdown as people realize the issue of climate change is best solved with green, renewable energy alternatives and states must prepare to take on a more active role in nuclear decommissioning.

 State and public authority during plant decommissioning is most likely to come in the form of money. Currently, states like Vermont whose ratepayers contributed heavily to the Vermont Yankee corporate decommissioning fund have no ability to audit and oversee those funds since they are not related to the expenditure of state or federal funds. In order to protect citizens from lax decommissioning and waste abandonment by the nuclear industry, states must create a funding source to be used specifically for shutdown nuclear sites.

 With money comes power, a state’s power to hold the nuclear industry accountable for the radioactive waste it has produced appears to be one of the best ways to push for safer nuclear waste disposal and reduce generational transfer of risk. Waste abandonment cannot be allowed to turn our world into a series of neglected and leaking highly radioactive dumps located adjacent to precious lakes, rivers, bays, oceans, and aquifers.

 Fairewinds will keep you informed.   

Related Articles:
WCAX TV captured Fairewinds’ Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen’s presentation on decommissioning following the US premiere of the French film, Decommissioning our Nuclear Power Stations: Mission Impossible?.

State Auditor Doug Hoffer says that the concerns brought to him by Fairewinds Energy Education in a 35-page report outlining the concerns over the decommissioning plan of Vermont Yankee are legitimate, according to VTDigger reporter Amy Ash Nixon.

Fairewinds Energy Education's Summer FUNdraiser Raffle! 

Close Your Eyes, Hold Your Hands

For the month of June, all who donate $60 or more to Fairewinds will be entered to win a copy of our book of the month, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, signed by the author Chris Bohjalian, Fairewinds President Maggie Gundersen, and Fairewinds Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen. Recurring donors who contribute $5/mo. or more to Fairewinds will also be eligible to win a book!
Books will be sent out in July to the winners of this Summer FUNdraiser Raffle.

 This is an important time for Fairewinds because a gracious donor will give us $3 for every dollar you contribute. That means your $100 donation becomes $400, or a $50 donation is actually $200. The success of this June fundraiser begins and ends with you. So please, click the Support Our Site (SOS) button and make a donation. And, thank you - from all of us on the Fairewinds crew!

About the Book:

Close Your Eyes and Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

Fairewinds Acknowledgement:

I want to begin by thanking … people whose work is dramatically more important than anything I do…. There is the leadership team at Fairewinds energy education, Arnie and Maggie Gundersen. Arnie was an atomic energy commission fellow and a licensed reactor operator who, as a senior vice president, managed or coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants across America. Maggie worked in public information and executive recruitment in the nuclear power industry. Today, through Fairewinds, they strive to educate the public and legislative tors about the realities of nuclear power and the issues with aging plants around the world. They volunteered enormous amounts of their time to teach me about the dangers of nuclear power, how plant works, and what Emily’s father’s life might have been like. I am encourage you to visit the Fairewinds website, where you can learn more about nuclear power and finding extensive bibliography.

Brief Summary:

Washington PostSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Best Book of the Year 
Emily Shepard is on the run; the nuclear plant where her father worked has suffered a cataclysmic meltdown, and all fingers point to him. Now, orphaned, homeless, and certain that she's a pariah, Emily's taken to hiding out on the frigid streets of Burlington, Vermont, creating a new identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. 
Then she meets Cameron. Nine years old and with a string of foster families behind him, he sparks something in Emily, and she protects him with a fierceness she did not know she possessed. But when an emergency threatens the fledgling home she's created, Emily realizes that she can't hide forever.

Author Chris Bohjalian and Fairewinds President Maggie Gundersen discuss, "What if a nuclear disaster destroyed your life?"


 It would not take an atomic bomb laced with lethal doses of radiation to contaminate your homeland, and cause such chaos. When nuclear power plants fail and nuclear reactors experience leaks, explosions, and overheat, radiation is carried by the wind and contamination and chaos ensue. Since Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in the Ukraine, and now the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown in Japan the lives of thousands of innocent people have been turned upside down and destroyed due to nuclear power risks becoming reality.

  In the latest video feature from Fairewinds Energy Education entitled: What's life after nuclear disaster? , Fairewinds’ President Maggie Gundersen and award winning Vermont author Chris Bohjalian, discuss what life would be like if a nuclear meltdown occurred at a nuclear power plant in Vermont.  In his most recent novel, Close Your Eyes and Hold Hands, Chris uses Vermont as the scene of a nuclear meltdown as seen through the eyes and experiences of 16-year old Emily Shepard, who is orphaned by the catastrophe, Bohjalian’s readers are drawn into the hardships and uncertainty that accompany a nuclear tragedy. With a haunting reality, Bohjalian creates images for his readers of the life currently being lived by the victims of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown, and previously experienced by the victims of the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. 


Nuclear News:

Hope for a green future? Of the 1,400 homeowners polled about renewable energy and other related topics in a survey conducted by a solar panel installer and marketing research firm half of those polled believe that solar energy is the most important energy source to pursue for the future. A striking 82% of those surveyed admit that economic viability is behind their push to buy clean, green energy, and 65% said they are making a conscious effort to fit the environment’s wellbeing into the equation when making day-to-day purchases.  Only 1% between the ages of 18-24 support nuclear power, denoting opposition to the generational transfer of nuclear waste and risk.

A former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission violated government ethics rules according to The Washington Post “by directly contacting potential employers with business before the NRC before the end of his term in mid-2007.” Jeffrey S. Merrifield, who served on the NRC from 1998 to 2007, twice cast votes on nuclear regulatory matters involving companies with whom he was seeking personal employment. Merrifield is now a senior vice president of the Shaw Group, a construction firm that provides services to most nuclear reactor projects and one of the firms that potentially benefited from Merrifield’s votes. The NRC inspector general’s report questions a vote cast by Merrifield in the approval of a plan by Shaw to cooperate with China on a Westinghouse Electric nuclear reactor model and a vote to approve a change in the criteria for emergency cooling systems, which could also affect work done by Shaw. Executive director Danielle Brian of the independent watchdog group, Project on Government Oversight, submitted a letter to NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko instigating the inspector general's investigation of Merrifield. Brian told The Washington Post that the NRC should show that officials "will be held accountable for violating their public responsibility and potentially misusing their public post for private gain."

Small modular renewables outperform small nuclear reactors! While, Senator Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) is pushing for federal research spending to prioritize small modular reactors, governments and scientists around the world are issuing reports showing that small modular renewables are the best choice. Alexander, who chairs the federal spending subcommittee panel with authority over energy and as one of the nuclear industry’s congressional supporters, wants the federal government to enable development of small nuclear reactors. Climate News Network has detailed the significant flaws associated with small modular reactors, specifically in safety design and cost, providing ample reasons for the persistent delays and cancellations of the development of small modular reactors around the world. Furthermore, as author Craig Morris points out in his article “Why Germany’s Energiewende is causing ripples in US”, Alexander is not the most up to date and reliable when it comes to educating the public on renewable energy.

There is a fire raging in Missouri about 1,200 feet south of the radioactive Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site, West Lake Landfill, that’s home to some of the oldest radioactive wastes in the world.

Since February 2013, Bridgeton Landfill has been burning underground emitting noxious fumes with dangerously high levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide in the air. Landfill owner, Republic Services, has sent conflicting fliers to residents of the area. The first round of notices simply stated the putrid odor clouding the air for miles, described by one area woman as "rotten eggs mixed with skunk and fertilizer", posed no safety risk.

However, official data tells a different story. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) detected the high levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide, and Missouri's Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) posted a notice cautioning citizens with chronic respiratory diseases to limit time outdoors. Temperature probes have revealed the fire has already surpassed normal heat levels, but Republic Services refuses to admit they are dealing with a "fire” and prefers the euphemism "subsurface smoldering event."

The second round of notices delivered to citizens by Republic Services, as part of a settlement set to be announced Tuesday, offers to move local families to hotels during a period of increased odor related to remediation efforts.

Concerned citizens Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman are working hard to keep neighbors informed of what the industry is not coming clean about, for example, the Bridgeton landfill fire is burning close to at least 8,700 tons of nuclear weapons wastes. This “subsurface smoldering” is creeping closer and closer to the radioactive waste abandonment site, West Lake Landfill.

In more recent news, on Tuesday, a judge ordered Republic Services to continue to provide carbon monoxide data to the state on a monthly basis to help emergency planners understand the proximity of the fire to the nearby nuclear waste. Republic Services had sought to modify this previously made agreement so that they would not have to provide data indefinitely until the state is satisfied. The judge also decided that the monthly data will flow from Republic Services to the state, and not through a “special master” appointed by the court – an arrangement Republic Services pushed for. Just a simple observation, but the industry’s PR in this matter looks like a page out of the "Nuclear Meltdown Playbook."


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