WISCASSET — It has been 14 years since the Maine Yankee nuclear plant generated a watt of electricity. Everything is torn down. All that remains on the grounds are 64 airtight steel canisters, most filled with highly radioactive fuel rods and housed in concrete casks.

The federal government promised to take them away, presumably to a permanent waste repository in the Nevada desert. But the Yucca Mountain plan was scrapped last year by the Obama administration, largely for political reasons.

Now what?

That’s what a new federal panel, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, is trying to figure out. A subcommittee of the panel that deals with transportation and storage issues came here Tuesday, for its first visit to an interim storage facility at a decommissioned nuclear plant.

The group toured Maine Yankee’s five-year-old dry-cask storage facility and heard from local officials and residents. Most of them had a clear message: They want the radioactive waste gone.

But any solution appears to be at least a decade away, and is subject to the forces of politics and technology. Until then, it will be up to Maine Yankee and state and local officials to safeguard waste that could be harmful to people and the environment for thousands of years.

The commission was formed early this year by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Its job is to recommend a safe, long-term solution for spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. It must issue a draft report in 18 months and a final version in two years.

It’s uncertain what the administration and Congress will do after that, said Richard Meserve, who heads the subcommittee. It could take 10 to 20 years to establish a disposal facility, he said after Tuesday’s meeting, and it’s too early to guess whether there’s an interim fix to remove Maine Yankee’s waste from Wiscasset.

Meserve, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said he understands why the Wiscasset area’s residents are upset that the plant closed but the radioactive waste stayed behind. “They have a legitimate local grievance,” he said.

Maine Yankee operated from 1972 to 1996. Although activists fought for years to close the plant, it was Maine Yankee’s board that ultimately voted to pull the plug, rather than fix expensive safety-related problems.

Some of those activists turned out Tuesday to speak against nuclear storage and nuclear power in general. They included Maria Holt, a retired nurse and former state lawmaker who has been studying the impact of radiation on health for 30 years.

She was joined by Ray Shadis of Friends of the Coast, who chronicled his group’s involvement in shaping the terms of Maine Yankee’s decommissioning.

But Maine Yankee and its former adversaries have common interests now. Both are pushing for the federal government to step up and remove the spent fuel, as it promised to start doing as of 1998.

Electricity customers have contributed $34 billion to a special fund for that purpose. Maine ratepayers chip in roughly $7 million a year to store the waste, and the payment issue is tied up in the courts.

To move ahead, the commission should explore the idea of a central, interim storage site, said Wayne Norton, chief nuclear officer for Maine Yankee. It could be in a community somewhere in the country that agrees to host the facility in exchange for money.

If such a site can be developed, he said, the panel should also focus on the transportation improvements that are needed to get the waste there.

Norton chairs a coalition of decommissioned nuclear plants including Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts. Others are in Wisconsin, California and Minnesota. Those plants have storage issues similar to Maine Yankee’s.

Some participants on Tuesday raised the question of whether it makes sense to develop an interim site, only to move the waste to a permanent facility.

Others said the panel should also consider the merits of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

Maine’s congressional delegation is united in its desire for the commission to focus on finding a solution for stored nuclear waste.

Sen. Olympia Snowe released a statement saying that while she supports a national repository, identifying communities that want to host an interim site might be a good short-term solution.

Sen. Susan Collins took a similar position.

“I urge you to give the utmost priority to removal of waste from shutdown reactors,” Collins wrote. “Ratepayers in the affected states have paid for storing this waste for decades while waiting for the federal government to carry out its mandated responsibility. Also, sites like the location here in Wiscasset could be redeveloped for more economically productive purposes if the waste were removed.”

Interim storage sites could be created at new nuclear power plants, if they are built again in this country, said Marge Kilkelly, a former state senator who chairs the Maine Yankee Community Advisory Panel.

Kilkelly expressed the view that the Yucca Mountain option became too polarizing. Perhaps the new approach will let the country move forward, she said, and finally agree on a solution for nuclear waste.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]