Fearing the Atom
Events in Japan focus attention on nuclear dangers in Maine.
- By: Colin Woodard
Photograph by Dave Cleaveland, Maine Imaging
On March 11, a forty-five-foot-tall wave crashed over the seawall defending the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan, disabling the emergency generators and interrupting the flow of coolant through its six reactors. At least three suffered a partial meltdown, contributing to explosions that breached their containment structures, releasing large quantities of radioactive substance into the air and sea.
It took two weeks for traces of radioactive iodine-131 to reach Maine, where it was detected in the air over the naval shipyard in Kittery, the physics lab at the University of Maine, and in rain falling on Augusta. But by then, public attention had already been fixated on the potential dangers of nuclear fuel to the Pine Tree State, and the wisdom of building new plants here in the future, as Governor Paul LePage has advocated.
The state’s only nuclear plant, Maine Yankee, closed in 1997, after its owners determined that refurbishment of its nine hundred-megawatt reactor would be uneconomical. The Wiscasset plant was dismantled, its signature dome dynamited, and most of the remains carried away for disposal in South Carolina. But the most radioactive parts — the 1,434 spent fuel rods and pieces of the reactor vessel itself — remain behind, entombed in sixty-four, two-story-tall concrete casks, surrounded by fences, and closely monitored by sensors, security cameras, and a contingent of armed guards. There they will remain until the federal government figures out what to do with it all, a problem expected to take decades to resolve.
The good news is that the Wiscasset storage site is relatively safe, both in its fundamental design and its operational track record. The waste, while literally “hot,” has cooled down enough that it needs no water or other coolant; air circulating naturally through the casks’ vents is sufficient to keep the rods and vessel scraps at a safe temperature. There are no cooling systems to be damaged or disabled by earthquakes or other unforeseen calamities, and even if the three hundred thousand-pound casks were somehow knocked over, they’ve been engineered to survive the experience, according to Eric Howes, Maine Yankee’s spokesman.
“We don’t require pumps, or electricity, or circulating water,” Howes notes. The closest equivalents to a loss-of-coolant incident faced there are heavy snowstorms and small woodland creatures, neither of which present a robust threat. “The idea is to keep the vents clear, which occasionally requires snow removal or making sure animals can’t nest in them.” Apart from that, the facility might carry on perfectly well without humans — perhaps even better, as the main threat to it is believed to be an assault by terrorists aiming to spread or capture the radioactive materials within.
Indeed, the monthly reports produced by Maine’s nuclear safety officer, Patrick Dostie, are reassuringly mundane. Unspecified security devices fail from time to time due to weather conditions (fog, perhaps). Cask vents are cleared following major snowstorms. The mowing tractor broke a blade after striking a tree in the summer of 2009, and staff responded to an eighth-of-a-cup oil spill from a visiting delivery truck in June 2010.
Security guards occasionally apprehend worm diggers who give in to the temptation to cut across Maine Yankee’s property en route to nearby mudflats, and the Wiscasset police are sometimes called upon to question motorists who raise suspicions by pulling over along the fence line. Radiation in the groundwater — minute to begin with — is slowly trending downward.
“The casks are sitting there, they’re bermed, they’re monitored, they’re secured,” says former state senator Marge Kilkelly, co-chair of the Maine Yankee Community Advisory Panel. “Basically, what’s left there is like watching paint dry. They sit there and you check on them.”
And sit they shall, for rather a long time, it seems. The federal government was supposed to take custody of the fuel back in 1998, having already collected disposal funds from Maine ratepayers. But complications — political and technical — delayed work on a long-term underground storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, where more than $13 billion has already been spent. As delays went on, radioactive waste continued accumulating at the nation’s 104 nuclear plants, filling storage pools and forcing some to build interim storage facilities at ratepayer’s expense. Maine Yankee closed down, but ratepayers continue to shell out some $8 million a year to monitor and protect its stranded waste. Then two years ago, President Barack Obama announced he was pulling the plug on Yucca, and was assigning a “Blue Ribbon Commission” the task of determining what the alternative might be. That group will make a preliminary report this summer, and a final one sometime next year. Meanwhile, Maine Yankee has won two federal lawsuits aiming to recover costs from the Department of Energy, which has appealed.
“It didn’t make a lot of sense for the president to stop Plan A before you have a Plan B,” says Bob Capstick, spokesperson for two other decommissioned plants forced to babysit their waste — Yankee Rowe in Rowe, Massachusetts, and Connecticut Yankee in Haddam, Connecticut. “We’ve been trying very hard to convince the Blue Ribbon Commission to recommend the creation of an interim storage facility for priority treatment of the fuel at shut-down reactors.” (A spokesperson for LePage said the governor also endorses such an approach.)
“We’ve paid fees to the federal government to store this stuff, and it’s beyond wrong that it’s still sitting here,” says Kilkelly. “Here’s the amazing aspect of that: If there is a settlement paid by the federal government, it’s going to come from separate taxpayer funds.”
This constipation of the national atomic fuel cycle has had a number of implications for Maine. First, of course, is that the former Maine Yankee site — a waterfront location with industrial-scale power infrastructure — is unavailable for redevelopment. Secondly, there’s the ever increasing danger posed by the growing stockpiles of fuel in the spent fuel pools of nuclear power plants in Seabrook, New Hampshire — eighteen miles south of Kittery — and Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, forty miles east of Eastport. Both plants require electricity to keep their fuel cool and avoid a Fukushima-like calamity. Both were built to survive even improbable events like a hurricane or a strong earthquake but, as events in Japan have shown, the universe sometimes defies our predictions and imagination.
At Seabrook, as elsewhere in the U.S., engineers have been forced to pack spent fuel rods ever more densely as they’ve waited for the federal government to take possession. “The fuel bundles stored in these pools are getting hotter as a result, and they’re also vulnerable because there’s not a containment the way there is around a nuclear reactor,” says Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) spokesman Elliott Negin. “As we saw in Japan, the walls around these pools are not that durable.” Currently there are more than a thousand spent fuel rods at the plant.
Nor is it reassuring that, back when Seabrook was being designed and constructed, seismology was at the forefront of its many critics’ concerns. Elizabeth “Earthquake Dolly” Weinhold, a local housewife, forced regulators to acknowledge that the underground pipes that supply the 1,150-megawatt reactor with seawater coolant could be severed in an earthquake, resulting in a loss of coolant incident. The result was the addition of a backup cooling tower at the plant, but critics remained concerned that the tower itself wasn’t built to survive the sort of quake that might take out the pipes. (“All plants are designed to withstand the largest historical earthquake plus additional margin,” says Diane Screnci, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson. “That’s why we’re confident the plants can continue to safely operate.”)
Canada has just started looking for a long-term waste depository, so fuel has been stacking up at Point Lepreau as well: some 2,500 metric tons stored in a pool and a series of dry vaults on site. “In Japan there was a loss-of-coolant accident, because nuclear power reactors and fuel pools need electricity for their pumps,” says Raphael Shay of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB). “This can happen in different ways. What would be familiar to us here is an ice storm.”
At present, Point Lepreau is ground zero for an escalating economic disaster. The plant — which is effectively owned by the people of New Brunswick — is in the midst of a rehabilitation project that is three years behind schedule and a billion dollars over budget. After a deal to sell the public utility that owns the plant, NB Power, fell through last year over uncertainties about when Lepreau might come back online, critics — including CCNB — have been loudly calling for the plant to be abandoned. “We say it’s uneconomical and that the industry will always be uneconomical,” Shay says.
It’s not just environmentalists who take the possibility of an accident at a plant in the region seriously. “I myself am not so concerned about the spent fuel in Wiscasset being a threat to the whole population as I am about us needing to be more prepared in general for nuclear disasters,” says Dora Anne Mills, who was head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention until earlier this year. “I don’t think we should go back to ‘duck and cover,’ but I think there should be more specific preparedness against specific disasters, nuclear being one of them.”
Events in Japan may also have complicated Governor LePage’s wish to see new power plants built in Maine. “Twenty years from now I would like to see a nuclear power plant at Loring [the former air force base in Limestone, and] I’d like to see one in Brunswick,” he told an Aroostook County radio audience while on the campaign trail last year. “With a nuclear power plant in northern Maine, we’ll curb these ‘two Maines’ into one,” he added, referring to the oft-cited economic gap between Maine regions.
His spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, told us the governor still believes “all energy options need to be on the table” if energy costs are to be reduced, but added “there are no plans in place to pursue nuclear options in the foreseeable future.”
That’s just as well, argues Don Hudson, president emeritus of the Wiscasset-based Chewonki Foundation and co-chair of the Community Advisory Panel. “It’s irresponsible for people in positions of authority to be talking about producing more of what is the most dangerous stuff on the planet,” he says, “when we don’t have a solution for what we’ve already got.”
- By: Colin Woodard