The following essay was printed in the Las Cruces Sun News on 8/10/2018. This is a reprint of that article:
Essay by Michael L. Hays:
A proposal to transport commercial spent fuel from nuclear power plants in other states and store it in a new waste repository in southeastern New Mexico has opposition from progressives, environmentalists and anti-nuclear groups. They are exploiting the public’s fear of radioactivity. Yet the public has little to fear. The record is perfect: since 1957, no injury, disease or death to the public, or damage to the environment from transporting and storing commercial spent fuel. My views reflect my consulting on NRC’s reviews of DOE’s plan for a major waste repository and NRC’s policy statement on safety goals.
The public has feared commercial nuclear power because of four undeniable facts. One, nuclear energy can cause enormous devastation, symbolized after its first use in atomic bombs. Two, nuclear energy for any purpose is an esoteric force understood and developed by a small number of specialists. Three, exposure to radioactivity can endanger health and life, directly or, in contaminated water, soils, or food, indirectly. Four, radioactivity can be neither naturally detected nor easily defended against.
The irrelevance of these facts about fears confronts the reality of the safety, health and environmental record of transporting and storing commercial nuclear wastes of all kinds for well over half a century. That record is unblemished: radioactivity from transported or stored spent fuel has neither harmed, sickened or killed one member of the public, nor closed off any waters or lands along tracks or roads, or off-site from repositories. Opponents of this proposal do not deny this record; indeed, they say nothing about it.
The reasons for this record should be reassuring. Scientists, engineers, managers and public officials have addressed these risks and abated them for decades. Concerns about transporting and storing spent fuel have prompted studies of the risks of accidents, releases, or terrorist attacks on rail or road shipments or at surface or subsurface repositories to ensure that they are not realized in actual effects. In turn, these studies have prompted research, policies, regulations and programs to protect the public from hazards and the environment from harm. Having done a good job for six decades, these professionals are likely to do a better job in the future, over even longer periods.
Opponents of the proposal object for other reasons: location, risks from surface transportation, likely long-term instead of “temporary” use, repository design and vulnerability to terrorist threat.
The objection to location is perverse. The proposed site is in a relatively remote, sparsely populated area — no threat to anything. Conversely, plant-site storage facilities of different kinds are widely distributed, nearer population centers and relatively riskier because they are older, more prone to leaks, less secure against natural disasters and more vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Transportation risks are negligible. Trains and trucks containing all kinds of radioactive wastes have traveled along tracks and over roads, near large cities and through small towns, for decades. Despite occasional derailments or accidents, they have caused no radiation-related injuries, diseases or deaths, or environmental harm. There has been no terrorist attack on any of these vehicles.
Storage risks are negligible. Whether the repository is “temporary” or not, initial storage requirements will satisfy all safety, health and the environment standards. Updated requirements will lower or prevent risks and provide for remediation.
A terrorist attack is unlikely to occur, much less succeed in damaging the repository, disrupting its operations or destroying or dispersing its contents. Its 30-foot cap is adequate to protect the repository and contain radiation.
The public should ask about prompt and full disclosure of risk-related matters, and the availability of sufficient resources and the commitment to use them immediately if need be. Politicians pretending to have “serious questions” should ask them. But fear the repository: why?
Michael L. Hays was an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy, and the environment. His consulting involved nuclear power and weapons.