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Growing up with a nuclear plant; now, co-existing with its nuclear waste

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Dry cask nuclear waste storage at the former Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant side in Haddam Neck in 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Lee Elci, the morning host for 94.9 News Now radio Originally, I was destined to don the green and gold colors of New London. If somebody was looking for me prior to my fifth birthday they only needed to center their search between the housing project on Laurel Drive, and the intersection of Colman Street and Garfield Avenue. Finding me wasn’t difficult, you just needed to look for the big fat kid with the Buddha belly, sporting tight tan high-water corduroy pants, an uneven crew cut, unapologetically dripping chocolate syrup over his ripped and worn Chicago Blackhawks knockoff jersey.

Life was simpler back then.

However, before I could fully integrate and ingratiate myself with the notion of growing up a Whaler, mom remarried and we made the four-mile trek to start a new life as part of Lancer Nation. My new pops, a construction magician, was building a house in Waterford, literally a stone’s throw from the Millstone Nuclear Power Station. Editorial Board Editor Paul Choiniere’s column Jan. 31 — “Is Millstone’s Nuclear Waste Dump Status Permanent?” — reminded me what it was like growing up in the shadow of Millstone’s steam stack.

Those old enough to remember Millstone’s infancy can confirm the 3 a.m. loud bangs, almost like sonic booms, followed immediately by the daunting release of mammoth amounts of steam. From our front porch a giant cloud, backlit and illuminated by the lights of the power plant, could be seen rising and dispersing into the atmosphere. Venting was random, yet consistent and always deafening. Night and day would bleed together as the plant’s afterglow created a sense of perpetual twilight.

In the early 1970s it would be commonplace to be privy to the inner office happenings at 314 Rope Ferry Road, Waterford. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, whatever might be said on the Northeast Utilities loudspeakers was audible to the surrounding neighborhood. We all knew when “Mr. Stevenson” was needed in engineering or if “John from maintenance’s” wife was waiting patiently on line 3. These sights, sounds and smells were part of my childhood.

The Millstone Power Station complex consists of three nuclear power units; Unit 1, a boiling water reactor, began commercial operation on November 29, 1970 and, on July 17, 1998, Northeast Utilities announced its retirement. Unit 2 is a pressurized water reactor that began commercial operation in December 1975, and Unit 3, also a pressurized water reactor, commenced commercial operation on April 23, 1986. The operating units use once-through cooling water systems, including a condenser and service water flow. According to a Yale study, the facility pulls about 2.2 billion gallons of water per day from Long Island Sound — 3% of the mean tidal flow estimated for the Niantic Bay — to cool its nuclear reactors.

Millstone provides essential, irreplaceable power for so many in the Northeast, and eventually replacing that power will be problematic. The chance for a catastrophic meltdown is minimal and weighing the ecological impact versus other forms of energy elevates nuclear power as a continual, practical option.

However, storing highly radioactive nuclear waste at Millstone is unacceptable and short-sighted. Waterford and the surrounding towns and cities have lived with the uncertainty and at times instability and growing pains of nuclear power. This area should not have to babysit something so menacing.

Currently, on a concrete pad in Waterford, rest dozens of canisters and containers filled with dangerous radioactive material. And although it may feel like a local issue, there are over 80,000 metric tons of used, or spent, nuclear fuel sitting in casks on-site at power plants around the country.

Yucca Mountain is the answer. A permanent disposal site for used nuclear fuel has been planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, since 1987, but politics has blocked it from becoming a reality.

Finland, Switzerland, and other European nations, along with at least a dozen other countries, are planning deep geological repositories for their nuclear waste. So far, $7.5 billion has been spent on Yucca Mountain, and, as of September 2016, there was a reported $36 billion in the nuclear waste fund created under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. It’s time for elected leaders to stand up and fight for a plan to permanently store this threatening byproduct of nuclear power.

Connecticut Senators Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy (the talker and the walker) should sit down with other legislators, including Congressman Joe Courtney, and develop a plan to help secure the health and safety of Connecticut residents and fight to protect the state’s precious environmental assets.

Represent your constituents and offer a bill to move radioactive waste to Yucca.

Paul Choiniere, the editorial page editor of The Day… The highly radioactive nuclear waste being stored at Millstone Power Station in Waterford, as well as the nuclear material left behind in Haddam after the Connecticut Yankee plant was dismantled, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe never. And that’s not acceptable.

The lack of concern about the nuclear waste storage problem was one of my takeaways from the editorial board’s meeting last week with leaders from Millstone-owner Dominion Energy, held virtually of course.

Chief Nuclear Officer Dan Stoddard seemed too comfortable with the status quo, which has altered Millstone from a nuclear station to a nuclear station and nuclear waste storage facility.

I would have felt more comfortable if Stoddard expressed some level of anger over the failure of the federal government to meet its obligation to remove the material and place it in safe storage for the thousands of years it will continue to emit dangerous levels of radiation.

But instead of voicing any urgency to get the stuff out of there, Stoddard offered assurances that the metal canisters, encased in concrete, that secure the spent nuclear fuel rods and block the radiation “will be secure for decades and certainly longer.”

Only when I reminded him that leaving the material there for decades was not the deal Waterford and Connecticut agreed to when the plants were licensed, did he say he was “sure” that “eventually” the federal government would meet its obligation and remove the nuclear waste.

I don’t know why he is so sure.

The deal when nuclear reactors were built across the country was that the fuel rods, when their energy was spent, would be temporarily stored in storage pools within the plants. In time they would be placed in canisters and transferred to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, on which the Department of Energy has spent $7.5 billion, collected from electric ratepayers, to build a safe depository deep within the mountain.

Highly radioactive waste and spent fuel from the production of nuclear weapons is stored there, but it has never opened for nuclear energy-produced waste as intended. Not moving forward with Yucca Mountain is one of the few things Presidents Obama and Trump have in common. All indications are President Biden will join them.

President Obama, in seeking to stay in the good graces of then Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, stalled the plans.

President Trump initially sought to restart the licensing procedure but reversed course early in 2020, which happened to be an election year with an outcome projected to be so close that Nevada’s six electoral votes could make a difference.

Still, Trump lost Nevada.

An alternative idea has surfaced of moving waste to a couple of other sites, rural locations in Texas and New Mexico have been discussed, before a consensus can be reached on what do with it.

But I see no urgency, anywhere, to tackle the challenge. No one wants to deal with the outcry that would result as this stuff is moved across the country from nearly a hundred locations, even if the science shows it can be done safely.

And as Stoddard told us, the situation is causing no fiscal pain for Dominion and other nuclear energy companies. The U.S. Department of Energy was required by a law passed by Congress to begin removing and permanently disposing of the spent fuel in 1998. When that didn’t happen, energy companies sued, and won. As a result, DOE is obligated to cover all the costs of storing the nuclear waste on site.

There are 31 storage containers at Millstone, each with 32 spent nuclear fuel assemblies. Dominion has built a concrete pad large enough for 135 canisters. On a pad in Haddam, along the Connecticut River, 43 steel-reinforced concrete casks hold all the fuel from the 28 years Connecticut Yankee operated.

These containers are monitored and secured and extremely robust in their design. They are safe, for now. But their contents will continue to emit dangerous levels of radiation for hundreds and thousands of years. Who knows what dystopian future might await humankind. Who could possibly assure, over that expanse of time, that tons of nuclear waste located along Long Island Sound and a major river that flows through all of New England will remain safely contained.

No one can.

Which is why the stuff should be entombed deep in a geologically stable depository as planned. Follow the science.

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