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Marks the Spot

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Marks the Spot

We Can't Solve America's Nuclear Waste Problem if We Keep Making More

"You can't leave nuclear waste in Illinois and 38 other states where it's stored temporarily above ground next to schools, rivers, lakes and downtown metropolitan areas. It's just not the smart thing to do in the interest of national security and environmental protection."
— Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis, in the Chicago Tribune, June 11, 2002.

A little-noticed urge in relicensing of nuclear reactors over the past four years will add 9,000 metric tons to the nation's inventory of high-level nuclear waste, prolonging storage problems through the middle of the century at reactor sites across the country, effectively transforming over a dozen power plants into long term nuclear waste dumps.

These 20-year operating extensions mean that more waste will be stored on site at power plants for a longer period of time; about 30 years longer, or the length of the average home mortgage, at most reactor locations.

The promise of Yucca Mountain was that it would consolidate all the nuclear waste in the nation in one location. As Energy Secretary Abraham said in 2002:

"America's national, energy and homeland security, as well as environmental protection is well served by siting a single nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, rather than having nuclear waste stranded in temporary storage locations at 131 sites in 39 states."

— DOE Press Release May 8, 2002.

This claim was never true.

Even if no nuclear power plants received extended operating permits, Yucca Mountain could not hold all the waste that will be generated under current operating licenses without significant expansion of its capacity.

But nuclear power plant licenses are being extended, largely in response to the congressional approval of Yucca Mountain, and they are being extended for longer than DOE has ever predicted in any of their analyses of Yucca's overall capacity. {C}DOE's worst-case nuclear waste generation and shipment scenario in the Yucca Mountain Environmental Impact Statement contemplates just 10 year operating extensions at the nation's nuclear power reactors. Twenty-four of 26 reactor operating extensions to date have been for 20 years. The other two extensions were for 18 and 19 years.

The rate of nuclear power plant relicensing doubled after Congress approved the nuclear waste dumpsite in Yucca Mountain, outside of Las Vegas, Nevada in July, 2002. From March, 2000 through June, 2002, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) extended the licenses at five power plants, beginning with the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland. From July, 2002 through May, 2004, the NRC approved 10 similar license renewals.

This trend appears to be accelerating. When approved and currently pending relicensing applications are considered together more than three times as many reactors were relicensed or applied for relicensing after the July 2002 vote, than before — 34 versus 10.

Currently there are renewal applications pending for 18 reactors at nine power plants in seven states. No application to date has been denied, making it a virtual certainty that these pending applications will be approved.

Congressional approval of Yucca Mountain and the ensuing surge in relicensing amounts to a backdoor perpetuation of our nation's dependence on nuclear power. But using Yucca as the pretext for nuclear power expansion is an ill-considered strategy. Although approved by Congress in 2002, the Nevada waste site still lacks full funding for construction, and perhaps more importantly, a federal appeals court found that the impact of the project must be evaluated for longer than the 10,000 years currently considered. This decision could easily delay the opening of the repository, meaning that nuclear waste will be stored even longer at nuclear power plants nationwide.

Nuclear power is a vestige of the Cold War, and an extremely risky way to make electricity. Every day that reactors produce power, they make nearly 170 pounds of lethal nuclear waste that will remain deadly for the next 10,000 years. By granting 20-year operating extensions to these aging reactors, the NRC has substantially increased the very serious security and safety concerns inherent in dealing with this waste, from storing it on-site at reactors — many of which are near major cities — to shipping highly radioactive nuclear waste through communities to Nevada, and staging it and dumping it in Yucca Mountain.


A new EWG Action Fund analysis of these facilities found that the 26 reactors at 15 nuclear power plants relicensed since 2000 see table] will produce an additional 9,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste over the 20-year period of their license extensions. Eighteen more reactors at nine power plants with license extensions pending would add another 6,600 metric tons of waste. This virtually guarantees that:

  • Nuclear power plants will be transformed into long-term nuclear waste dumps. The recent surge in reactor relicensing ensures that hundreds of metric tons of extremely hazardous, high-level nuclear waste will remain in place at reactors around the country, as more waste is produced long after Yucca Mountain is full.
  • The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump will have to be expanded. By law, Yucca Mountain is limited to 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, which is almost equal to the amount of nuclear waste that will be stored on-site at reactors around the country on the day the repository is opened in 2010. If the high-level nuclear waste generated by recent operating extensions is ultimately moved off reactor sites for disposal, it is extremely unlikely that it will end up anywhere else but Nevada.
  • Shipping the extra 9,000 metric tons of nuclear waste to Nevada will require nearly 6,000 additional truck shipments, or 1,050 rail shipments of high-level nuclear waste through communities nationwide. The security and health risks inherent in these shipments are enormous, and preparedness is minimal.


Nuclear power is an outmoded, heavily subsidized, high-risk relic of the Cold War that presents far too many serious hazards to justify its continuation. From terrorist strikes, to transportation of waste, to the constant risks presented by operating the plants themselves, nuclear power is, by any rational measure, far more risky than it is worth.

Yet as a nation, we rely on nuclear power for 20 percent of our electricity. The time is now, for the United States to begin to cut our dependence on nuclear power, and seriously fund alternative energy sources that are far less risky to our health, our environment, and our national security.

An excellent way to begin this transition is to halt the knee-jerk relicensing of nuclear power plants, and to take the time we have left under current operating licenses to move the nation to cleaner, safer transitional energies like natural gas and cleaner coal, and ultimately to renewable energies such as solar and wind combined with a serious commitment to energy efficiency. If these alternatives were subsidized at amounts equal to the subsidies granted the nuclear industry, there is no doubt that a transition to a nuclear-free future could be achieved over the next 20 years.


Relicensing Will Leave Hundreds of Metric Tons of Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste Stranded at Power Plants

The power plants with the most nuclear waste on site due to license extensions are McGuire in North Carolina, Catawba in South Carolina, and Edwin Hatch in Georgia, with 1,416, 1,409 and 1,103 metric tons of waste respectively left on site at the end of their operating life. The states with the most nuclear waste generated as a result of relicensing are South Carolina, Virginia, and Florida.

Nuclear Plants Where Reactor Licenses Have Been Extended

Nuclear Plant State Number of Reactors Waste on-site now
(metric tons)
Waste generated from relicensing
(metric tons)
Waste on-site after license extension expires
(metric tons)
McGuire NC 2 1,122 906 1,416
Catawba SC 2 849 790 1,409
Edwin I. Hatch GA 2 1,144 865 1,103
Oconee SC 3 1,529 959 1,095
North Anna VA 2 915 766 1,082
Peach Bottom PA 2 1,271 806 927
Calvert Cliffs MD 2 923 626 767
St. Lucie FL 2 837 524 746
Surry VA 2 960 668 726
Turkey Point FL 2 874 573 623
Summer SC 1 394 376 593
Arkansas Nuclear One * AR 1 905 291 451
H. B. Robinson SC 1 279 299 291
Fort Calhoun NE 1 310 196 221
Ginna NY 1 383 225 214
Total 8,870 11,663

* The 905 metric tons currently on site include the waste generated by both of Arkansas Nuclear One's reactors. The 291 metric tons of waste generated from relicensing include waste generated only from the one reactor that has been relicensed. The 451 metric tons of waste on-site after the license extension expires does not include waste generated by the second reactor's pending relicense period.

Nuclear Plants with Reactor License Extensions Pending/h4>

Nuclear Plant State Number of Reactors Waste on-site now
(metric tons)
Waste generated from relicensing
(metric tons)
Waste on-site after license extension expires
(metric tons)
Browns Ferry AL 3 1,454 1,365 1,442
Millstone CT 2 1,380 936 1,393
D. C. Cook MI 2 1,146 820 1,107
Joseph M. Farley AL 2 942 663 936
James FitzPatrick/Nine Mile Point NY 2 1,405 775 746
Arkansas Nuclear One * AR 1 905 291 743
Dresden IL 2 1,889 738 719
Quad Cities IL 2 1,074 580 638
Point Beach WI 2 724 434 461
Total 6,601 8,184

* The 905 metric tons currently on-site include the waste generated by both of Arkansas Nuclear One's reactors. The 291 metric tons of waste generated from relicensing include waste generated only from the one reactor that has a pending application for relicensing, not the reactor that has already been relicensed. The 743 metric tons of waste left on-site after the license extension expires include waste generated by both the reactor that has already been relicensed and the reactor with a pending application to be relicensed.

Source: EWG Action Fund analysis of the DOE Yucca EIS, Appendix A. "Currently on-site" is calculated by taking DOE's figure for actual waste on-site in 1995 and adding the amount of waste DOE reports will be generated by each reactor between 1996 and 2011. "Current license waste generated" is calculated by taking each plant's actual waste on-site in 1995 and adding the following product: the plant's yearly rate of waste generation from 1996 to 2011, as reported by DOE, multiplied by the the number of years the plant will operate past 1995 under its current license. "License extension waste generated" adds "current license waste generated" to the product of waste generated per year and the number of years for which the plant has been, or will be, relicensed.

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