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PLYMOUTH

Coalition aims for nuclear waste safety

Group targets storage of spent nuclear fuel

By Christine Legere Globe Correspondent 

Plymouth officials have embarked on an effort to unite communities with nuclear reactors across the country into a coalition that will fight for safer storage of nuclear waste at their plants.

Selectwoman Belinda Brewster,  who has spent a year planning last week’s  creation of the Coalition of Nuclear Communities,  said the group will focus on safe handling of spent fuel, and would not get caught up in the broader debate over nuclear energy.

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“We’re not going out as pro-nuke or anti-nuke,” Brewster said. “We’re going out as pro-safety. Our communities are being turned into long-term nuclear waste dump sites, with highly radioactive, crowded, spent fuel pools.”

The coalition intends to lobby federal lawmakers to change fuel-storage practices and provide money for new facilities. By doing it as a nationwide coalition, “we’ll have a louder voice,” Brewster said during her presentation on the coalition to fellow selectmen last Tuesday.

Brewster last week launched a website,www.nuclearcommunities.com,  loaded with information and statistics. The site also provides tools such as press releases and form letters to send to US senators and representatives.

“The goal is to make it easy for other officials and people to get the ball rolling,” Brewster said.

In the coming weeks, Plymouth is ready to fire off e-mails to officials in the nuclear reactor host communities, asking them to join the coalition.

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New England has two other nuclear power plants, located in Vernon, Vt.,  and Seabrook, N.H.  Both use pool storage for spent rods.

Brendan Kelly,  selectmen chairman in Seabrook, said he would welcome a joint effort to make nuclear storage safer. “We seem to be behind the times here,” he said. “Anything that would improve what we have here now, I’d be in favor of.”

There are currently 104 nuclear reactors  operating in 31 states,  and nearly 70,000 tons  of spent fuel – a radioactive byproduct of the nuclear process – are being stored onsite.

Most spent fuel, contained in 12-foot-long rods,  is kept in deep pools of water. Such is the case at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, which has 3,000 spent fuel rods. Plymouth officials want to move the rods from the pools to dry casks constructed of steel and concrete, a method supported by nuclear watchdogs.

While the plant’s owner, Entergy Corp.,  has said it will start to transfer some rods to dry casks when pools run out of room, the company’s plan of moving 200  rods to casks every two years would leave thousands in pools indefinitely, Brewster said.

David Lochbaum,  director of the Nuclear Safety Project  of the Union of Concerned Scientists,  agreed that dry cask storage is far safer. “My organization’s number one goal is to get spent fuel from pools to casks,” Lochbaum said, who added that local groups have been lobbying for the change for years.

“There’s widespread support across the country for dry cask storage,” Lochbaum said, referring to pool storage as a “loaded gun” pointed at the millions of residents who live within a 50-mile radius of the country’s nuclear reactors. “This is something that has bipartisan support. It’s one of the few things every group agrees on.”

But the switch in storage methods won’t be simple or cheap. The price tag to make the change nationwide could be as much as $7 billion. 

Federal money is available in the Nuclear Waste Fund,  which currently contains about $30 billion  in taxes collected over the last 30 years from utility customers. But provisions in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982  restrict the fund’s use to construction of a federal repository for the country’s nuclear waste.

There had been a plan at one time to build a repository in Yucca Mountain  in Nevada,  but the proposal was scrapped in 2009.  A federal Blue Ribbon Committee has been appointed but concedes that a long-term solution remains decades away.

The Coalition of Nuclear Communities  would lobby federal lawmakers to change the Nuclear Waste Policy Act’s restriction on waste funds to cover the cost of cask storage of spent fuel at the various nuclear plants.

Patrick O’Brien,  special assistant to Plymouth’s town manager, developed an action plan over the next 24 months that starts with an e-mail and telephone campaign, goes on to public education and lobbying efforts, and finally to passage of a federal bill to tap the waste fund.

One snag is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s  current position on waste storage.

“We have said for many years spent fuel can be safely stored in fuel pools, which are robust structures,” said commission spokesman Neil Sheehan,  when contacted by the Globe.

Sheehan said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission came out with recommendations following Fukushima, and those did not include switching from pool to cask storage.

“The NRC will continue to evaluate based on the lessons from Fukushima,” Sheehan said. “Whether there will be any changes in storage of spent fuel on site remains to be seen.”

Lochbaum, in a paper written on spent fuel management written for the Union of Concerned Scientists last fall, said pool storage poses “unduly high safety and security risks.” He called dry casks “much safer and more secure.” Lochbaum called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s position “irresponsible.”

Brewster said the effort to form a coalition has so far been done with “no money and in our spare time.”

“We may need to hire someone to dedicate a certain amount of time to this in the future,” she said.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.