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

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 adminstration, 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 today to tour the 5-year-old, dry-cask storage facility and hear from local officials and residents. It was the group’s first visit to an interim storage facility at a decommissioned nuclear plant.

Most participants had a clear message: They want the radioactive waste gone.

But any solution appears at least a decade away, and 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 blue ribbon commission was set up early this year by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. It’s charged with recommending 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 new disposal facility, he said after the meeting, and it’s too early to guess if there’s an interim fix that would remove Maine Yankee’s waste from Wiscasset. A former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Meserve said he understood why Wiscasset area residents were upset that the plant shut down but the radioactive waste stayed behind.

“They have a legitimate local grievance,” he said.

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

Some of the original activists turned out today, to speak not only against nuclear storage, but nuclear power in general. They included Maria Holt, a retired nurse and 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 the Maine Yankee decommissioning.

But Maine Yankee and its former adversaries share 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. Electric customers have contributed $34 billion to a special waste fund for this purpose. Maine ratepayers chip in roughly $7 million a year to store the waste, and the payment issue is currently tied up in the courts.

To move ahead, said Wayne Norton, the chief nuclear officer at Maine Yankee, the commission should explore the idea of a central, interim storage site. It could be located in a community somewhere in the country that volunteers to host the facility in exchange for money. If such a site can be developed, he added, the panel should also focus on the transportation improvements needed to get the waste there.

Norton also chairs a coalition of decommissioned nuclear plants that include Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts. Others are in Wisconsin, California and Minnesota. Those plants face storage issues similar to Maine Yankee.

But some participants raised the question of whether it makes sense to construct an interim site, only to move the waste again to some 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 waste stored at shut reactors, such as Maine Yankee.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, 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.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, 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.”

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

As the meeting went on, Kilkelly expressed the view that the Yucca Mountain option had just become too polarizing. Perhaps this new approach would allow the country to move forward, she said, and finally agree on a solution for nuclear waste.

“It’s illogical and expensive to spread them out all over the country, when they could be concentrated,” she said.


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