If you’re on the road in Vermont this week and happen upon a giant nuclear waste cask being towed by a white pickup truck, don’t panic — the cask itself is a fake. The people behind the spectacle, however, say the threat posed by nuclear waste is very real, and they’re sounding the alarm over plans for radioactive waste being stored at Vermont Yankee.
In 2016, one of the companies involved in the decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant filed an application to build something called a “Consolidated Interim Storage Facility.”
The facility would be located in a stretch of desert near the Texas-New Mexico border. And it could, if approved, hold high-level nuclear waste from shuttered nuclear plants, like Vermont Yankee.
Leona Morgan, with the Nuclear Issues Study Group, in New Mexico, came to Vermont this week with a simple message:
“I’m here to talk to the local residents to explain that folks in New Mexico and Texas, we don’t want these waste sites,” Morgan said.
From uranium mining to the proposed storage site, Morgan said lands sacred to indigenous people in the southwest United States have become a dumping ground for the toxic waste created by the nuclear power industry.
Morgan is a member of the Diné, also known as the Navajo, a group of indigenous people native to the Southwest.
“The biggest fear, I would say, is the risk of accidents,” Morgan said.
More from VPR — Vermont Yankee Moves Last Of Its Spent Nuclear Fuel Into On-Site Storage Casks [Aug. 3]
Deb Katz, executive director of an anti-nuclear group called Citizens Awareness Network, lives between the Yankee Rowe reactor, in Rowe, Massachusetts, and Vermont Yankee, in Vernon.
Katz said she’d love nothing more than to see spent fuel from those old power plants shipped as far away as possible. She said it would irresponsible, however, to slough the problem off onto Texas and New Mexico.
“Reactor communities want the waste out, and targeted communities, like Leona’s, don’t want the waste, and understandably so,” Katz said.
Katz and Morgan are also worried about safety risks associated with transporting the waste to its destination. And Katz said that’s why her organization invited Morgan and others on a road trip through New England this week.
“We felt it was really important for people to see who’s affected by this — that this is not some abstract notion of it’s just going to sit in the middle of the desert, no one’s affected," Katz said. "There are people there, and they don’t want our waste."
One big problem, Katz said, is that the proposed storage sites in Texas and New Mexico are short-term solutions. She and Morgan say the nuclear industry should keep its high-level waste stored at the reactors it was created in, until there’s a responsible solution for permanent storage.
Neil Sheehan, a public affairs officer with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said there are benefits to a centralized repository, even if it is temporary.
“The advantages obviously are you’ve got a centralized storage area for this material instead of having it dispersed,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan said the NRC is still vetting proposals to construct such a facility. If one is approved though, he said that means it has met the high safety and security protocols required by federal regulators.
As for transporting the waste from point A to point B, Sheehan said that’s something that’s already being done now, albeit in smaller volumes than if a larger storage facility were to become available.
“And it’s been demonstrated time and again that that can be carried out safely, that there are casks that are specially designed to perform that task, and there are many safeguards that would be in place to make sure that could be carried out safely,” Sheehan said.
Reassurances from federal regulators though are cold comfort to Katz and Morgan. They say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has proven itself unfit to govern the industry it was created to oversee.
“There has to be a way to work on this outside of the box that both the federal government and the industry have created,” Katz said.
She and Morgan hope the sight of a nuclear waste cask on Vermont roads, even if it isn’t real, will get more people pressing for that answer.