By MATT WALTERS
Capital News Service
LANSING – The federal government’s long-running failure to open a disposal site in Nevada for high-level nuclear waste is irking some Michigan lawmakers.
A pending House resolution urges the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to begin accepting waste at the Yucca Mountain repository, which was supposed to open in 1998.
That hasn’t happened because opponents in the federal government and in Nevada brought the plan to a stand-still over safety and political concerns.
Michigan’s nuclear plants have been storing their waste on-site for decades.
Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, primary sponsor of the resolution, said his main goal is to make sure the federal government keeps its promise.
Resolutions are expressions of legislative opinion and have no legal effect.
“The government has been collecting tax money to pay for the repository for years now but it remains unopened,” Nesbitt said.
People who receive electricity from nuclear plants pay a tax on every kilowatt hour of energy. The money goes toward funding the proposed national repository, he said.
Nesbitt said that’s amounted to approximately $760 million in Michigan since 1982.
There are three operating nuclear power plants in Michigan: Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman, Fermi 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Frenchtown Township, and Palisades Nuclear Plant in Covert.
The resolution says those plants generated 21.5 percent of the state’s electricity in 2009.
Palisades is the biggest property taxpayer in his southwest Michigan district, Nesbitt said.
He said a permanent storage facility will help keep the plant operating long-term and the state and country need a place to store nuclear waste.
Hugh McDiarmid, communications director at the Michigan Environmental Council, also stressed the need for a permanent storage facility.
McDiarmid said that a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain would be only a temporary solution since it could hold only the waste already produced.
He said high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored on-site in spent fuel pools or in concrete-and-steel dry storage casks.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy projected that Michigan’s three operating plants would produce more than 2,800 tons of high-level nuclear waste by the spring of 2010.
Waste is also temporarily stored at the former site of Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant in Charlevoix, which closed in 1997.
Kevin Kamps, a member of Beyond Nuclear, a national anti-nuclear energy group based in Maryland, said there are 64 tons of high-level nuclear waste at Big Rock, some of which is 50 years old.
Kamps said research and lawsuits around the country raise questions about the safety of temporary storage methods.
“Fermi 2 is filled to the brim,” said Michael Keegan, co-chair of Don’t Waste Michigan, an anti-nuclear energy group based in Monroe.
He said that Fermi’s spent fuel pools will be loaded to twice their designed capacity by 2015.
“It’s an industry without a disposal system. No one wants the waste and no one knows what to do with it,” Keegan
Guy Cerullo, communications manager for Fermi 2 at DTE Energy, said the spent fuel pools at Fermi contain all the waste that has accumulated since the plant opened in 1988 and are around 70 percent full.
The circular pools are 40 feet deep by 40 feet in diameter, made of concrete and lined with steel. They are the same at every nuclear plant around the country, Cerullo said.
“We are running out of room because the federal government failed to live up to their commitment,” said Cerullo.
DTE has yet to transfer its high-level nuclear waste at Fermi 2 to dry storage casks but plans to do so this summer, Cerullo said.
The waste will be transferred to two or three casks, a process he said takes about a month to complete.
Each cask is approximately 20 feet tall, made of carbon steel and concrete, with 27-inch thick walls. Casks will be placed on large concrete slabs in a high-security area of the plant.
According to Cerullo, the casks are identical to nearly 1,000 others used at 46 nuclear plants around the United States.
Cerullo said DTE will do whatever necessary to make sure the transfer is done safely.
“We go to great lengths to ensure the safety of everything we do at Fermi 2. It is our number-one priority, and this process will be no different,” he said.
McDiarmid, of the MEC, said the day-to-day risk of those methods isn’t high but concern grows as more waste accumulates.
“These storage solutions were not designed to last this long,” he said, adding that a natural disaster could cause serious problems.
According to Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan, current storage devices were meant to last for only 10 to 12 years.
He also said that keeping potentially dangerous waste on-site increases the risk of a terrorist attack.
But Cerullo said he’s confident that DTE’s dry storage casks will create little-to-no risk to the environment.
“The casks are designed and tested for even the worst conditions, be it an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, flood or sabotage,” Cerullo said.
The casks are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 20 years, after which the can be re-licensed for another 20 to 40 years. However, they’re designed to safely store spent fuel for longer periods than that, Cerullo said.
The resolution passed through the House Energy and Technology Committee and is awaiting a full vote. Co-sponsors include Reps. Sharon Tyler, R-Niles; Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville; Dale Zorn, R-Ida; Ray Franz, R-Onekama; Frank Foster, R-Pellston; Douglas Geiss, D-Taylor; Matt Lori, R-Constantine; and Amanda Price, R-Holland.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.