The nuclear industry has a deadly planning problem

Aug 15, 2022

By Kate Groetzinger

Without a permanent radioactive waste disposal site, nuclear power will continue to harm Western communities

Nuclear power is often hailed as the perfect clean energy, since it requires relatively little fuel and generates a huge amount of electricity. But the nuclear industry has a massive unaccounted cost — the thousands of lives cut short and ruined due to uranium and nuclear waste exposure. This cost falls heavily on marginalized communities in the West, where uranium is mined and milled and nuclear waste is dumped in “temporary” storage facilities and containment cells.

This problem is partially due to poor planning by the nuclear industry and the U.S. Department of Energy, which have been unable to identify a location to permanently store radioactive waste. The proposed Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada appears to be permanently off the table, which has left the industry scrambling to find short-term solutions for nuclear waste while holding out hope for another storage site that is both geologically feasible and politically palatable. This failure is highlighted by a fight over nuclear waste playing out right now in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where a New Jersey-based nuclear company wants to ship spent nuclear fuel rods for what it calls “consolidated interim storage” above ground until the U.S. develops a permanent repository for nuclear waste.

The proposal was met with strong skepticism by state leaders, who fear New Mexico will become a permanent nuclear waste dump. And they’re right to be skeptical — nuclear companies have lied to and misled Western communities for decades about the risks involved with mining and milling uranium as well as storing nuclear waste.

A deadly history

The Los Angeles Times and ProPublica this month reported on a “death map” of the Murray Acres and Broadview Acres communities along I-40 in the western part of New Mexico, tracking residents who suffered from breast cancer, thyroid disease, and other effects of uranium exposure. The residents live next to a uranium mill owned by the Homestake Mining Company, which processed uranium to supply power plants and nuclear bombs. The mill left behind 22.2 million tons of uranium waste.

The mill operated from 1958 to 1990, even as state and federal officials knew it was contaminating groundwater. Homestake and government agencies left behind numerous broken promises that it would clean up the mill, but deadlines slipped, from the 1990s, to 2006, then 2017, then 2022.

Now, rather than finish cleaning up its radioactive mess, the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold, which owns Homestake, is buying out residents in an attempt to walk away from the site and hand it over to the U.S. Department of Energy. According to ProPublica and the L.A. Times, “Those who sell are required to sign agreements to refrain from disparaging Homestake and absolve the company of liability, even though illnesses caused by exposure to radioactive waste can take decades to manifest.”

Even if all of the homeowners accept the buyout, a largely Indigneous community of 15,000 people nearby will continue to rely on water contaminated by Homestake’s pollution.

A “temporary” solution in Carlsbad

Across the state, New Jersey-based Holtec International wants to ship up to 100,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants to an area near Carlsbad for what it calls “consolidated interim storage” above ground until the U.S. develops a permanent repository for nuclear waste. A consortium of city and county leaders support the plan, saying it would provide economic stability to an area dominated by boom-and-bust oil extraction.

But there are no plans for a permanent nuclear storage solution anywhere in the country, warn state leaders. They say the facility could end up holding the waste for far longer than its planned 40-year lifespan, putting more generations of New Mexicans at risk of radiation exposure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed its final environmental impact statement for the site, which found it would have “minimal” impact. But that environmental review only looked at the site’s ostensible 40-year lifespan, and even though Holtec admits the site could end up operating for 120 years, the government did not even consider the possibilities of environmental harm if the company is unable to find a permanent dump for its spent fuel, or chooses to not renew its license after 40 years. A final safety review of the Holtec proposal is underway, and a final decision could come in January 2023.

The never-ending pilot program

Not far from the proposed Holtec site sits America’s only deep geological dump for hazardous material, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). It stores items like clothing, rags, and tools contaminated with radiation from nuclear research and assembly at places like New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, burying them in a 250-million-year-old salt bed that was deemed ideal for nuclear waste.

Source New Mexico reports that WIPP’s permit calls for the plant to begin closing in 2024, forever holding up to 175,000 cubic meters of waste. But the facility now wants to build more storage panels, after one was closed early in 1999, and one and a half more panels were sealed empty after a truck fire and radioactive release in 2014.

As its name suggests, WIPP was intended to be a short-term project, storing waste until other sites begin operating across the country. But in the 45 years since Congress authorized WIPP, no other sites have opened, and the Department of Energy has no plans for any other nuclear waste dumps, even for the low-level waste that WIPP takes in.

Meanwhile, in Utah

A similar scenario is playing out right now in southeast Utah, where the country’s only operating uranium mill has turned into a de facto nuclear waste dumping ground. The White Mesa Mill, owned by Canadian mining company Energy Fuels, is located just a few miles from Ute Mountain Ute reservation land.

When the White Mesa Mill was built in 1980, it was only permitted to process domestic uranium ore for 15 years. Yet it is still operating today, using a loophole in nuclear regulatory law that allows it to process all types of radioactive waste so long as it extracts some uranium from it. This has allowed the mill to accept and store radioactive waste from as far away as Estonia, where companies face a similar nuclear waste storage problem as those in the United States.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has filed numerous complaints against Energy Fuels over the years, claiming the mill is likely contaminating the Tribe’s groundwater and that its permits should not cover the processing and storage of radioactive waste. But Energy Fuels disputes that claim, and Utah state regulators, who oversee the mill’s operation, have so far refused to step in to investigate the Tribe’s concerns.

“Just trust us” doesn’t work

Given this history, it’s no wonder Western communities are skeptical when corporations like Holtec International approach them with plans to temporarily store nuclear waste in their backyards. The nuclear industry has been its own worst enemy — lying to communities about its plans and poisoning residents in the process, while the federal government fails to find a permanent and safe storage site that can win support from residents and in Congress.

Until the United States can build a safe storage site for radioactive waste, nuclear energy will remain a dirty fuel with a high cost: the health and safety of Westerners.

(feature image: Radiation sign at Ambrosia Lake uranium mining area, New Mexico. Netherzone/Wikimedia)