The decommissioned Maine Yankee site in Wiscasset currently houses 542 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored, which costs $10 million annually to maintain. Photo courtesy of Maine Yankee

The federal government has taken the first step in an effort to move the nation’s spent nuclear fuel — like the 542 metric tons of nuclear waste at the long-decommissioned Maine Yankee facility in Wiscasset — but a Maine Yankee official said that waste likely isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

On Nov. 30, the U.S. Department of Energy released a request for information on a consent-based effort to move the nation’s spent nuclear fuel to other communities willing to hold onto it until the government finds a permanent storage solution for the waste. The DOE is collecting feedback from stakeholders on the effort until March 4, 2022, at 5 p.m.

This action is considered long overdue because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the federal government to remove the radioactive waste from sites including Maine Yankee by 1998, but that commitment was never fulfilled.

Maine Yankee operated from 1972 to 1996 when the company’s board voted to cease operations rather than invest in fixing expensive safety-related problems to keep the plant running. The plant was fully decommissioned in 2005. Since then, the nuclear waste has sat there, waiting for the government to remove it.

Maine Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel is housed in 64 dry storage casks, which stand on 16 3-foot-thick concrete pads. Each concrete cask is comprised of a 2.5-inch-thick steel liner surrounded by 28 inches of reinforced concrete. The fuel storage site takes up 11 acres of Maine Yankee’s current 180-acre site on Wiscasset’s Bailey Point. When Maine Yankee was operational, the company’s entire property spanned 820 acres.

Maine Yankee Public and Government Affairs Director Eric Howes said moving the nuclear waste elsewhere will be a years-long process, but this movement is, “a positive development, but much more needs to be done to resolve the spent nuclear fuel issue.”

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“For the last 10 years, the de facto policy of the federal government has been to leave the spent nuclear fuel where it is, stranding it indefinitely in Wiscasset and 33 other states without consent,” said Howes. “Maine Yankee’s goal is to go out of business and the only reason we’ve stayed in business is because the federal government has not met its obligation to remove this material from the site.”

Howes said communities may be leery about offering to store the nuclear waste temporarily until the government finds a place to dispose of the waste permanently. Relaunching an effort to find a new permanent disposal site for the country’s nuclear waste may give communities some reassurance that, should they offer to store the waste, they won’t be stuck with it forever, said Howes.

“It’s going to be difficult to get a community willing to be an interim storage facility because what does interim mean?” Howes said. “What’s meant by interim when, at this point, there is no plan for a permanent geologic repository?”

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act named the Yucca Mountains in Nevada to be a permanent disposal site for the country’s nuclear waste, but those plans were scrapped by the Obama administration and the government never relaunched efforts to find a new permanent disposal site.

Kathryn Huff, principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy, said the department recognizes it needs to take responsibility for the 86,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in sites across the country.

Wiscasset Selectman Dusty Jones said he has heard from some residents who want the nuclear waste at Maine Yankee gone while others “would probably like to see the material moved back into an on-site, water-filled containment unit and connected to a few steam-powered electric generators” to produce power locally.

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While the nuclear waste at Maine Yankee and in sites nationwide is stored safely and isn’t a risk to anyone where it is now, Huff said it needs to be removed because “the communities that have that spent nuclear fuel never agreed to host the material long-term.”

“We cannot continue to defer the problem for future generations to figure out,” Huff said during a public information session Tuesday. “Inaction on this issue has already cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $9 billion on settlements and judgements.”

Howes says it costs Maine Yankee roughly $10 million annually to store the nuclear waste safely while waiting for the government to remove it. He said the company pays to store it with funds won in lawsuits against the DOE.

Maine Yankee and its two sister sites, Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Rowe in Mass., have collectively won about $575.5 million in lawsuits and is now in its fifth round of litigation with the department. The money the government concedes in those lawsuits, however, comes from The Judgement Fund, which is funded by U.S. taxpayers.

Although Maine Yankee is still “one of the town’s largest taxpayers” in Wiscasset, it pales in comparison to the economic benefits it lent the town when it was operational, Jones said.

When Maine Yankee was operating, it covered 90% of the town’s property tax base, chipping in about $12 million. Now, the company still pays $700,000 in property taxes, covering only 6% of Wiscasset’s tax base, according to Town Manager Dennis Simmons.

“Maine Yankee was an important part of Wiscasset’s economy when they were operating a power plant here,” said Jones. “Since shutting down, the residents of Wiscasset have absorbed the costs of most of the amenities provided by the town and Wiscasset continues to be a wonderful place to live and work with a robust economy.”

This story was updated at 10 a.m. Monday, December 13 to correct the amount of money that nuclear waste has cost U.S. taxpayers and to clarify the current size of the Maine Yankee property.

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