That’s the big takeaway from the June 7, 2019 field hearing at the Chet Holyfield Federal Building in Laguna Niguel chaired by U.S. Representative Harley Rouda (D–48th District). Along with Representatives Mike Levin (D–49th District) and James Comer (R, Kentucky’s 1st District), Rouda called for a federal policy to deal with spent nuclear reactor fuel, which could threaten millions of people nationwide for centuries to come.
The main problem is that the spent fuel produced by nuclear reactors will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of generations. And yet this nation doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a national policy for dealing with this waste.
Here’s part of Rep. Rouda’s opening statement, which lays out the magnitude of the problem facing our nation’s current approach (if you can call it that) to the storage of spent nuclear reactor fuel:
Without a permanent repository, there are now approximately 100 sites across at least 34 states currently storing high level nuclear waste. Americans’ exposure to these risks associated with having nuclear waste in our communities does not fall along any partisan or demographic lines. Approximately one in every three Americans now live within 50 miles of nuclear waste. Nuclear reactors and spent nuclear fuel sites sit in congressional districts represented by both Democrats and Republicans. The serious challenges at hand affect communities across the country.
One of these sites, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), is less than 20 miles from where we are right now.
Let’s put that into context–after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recommend that Americans in Japan evacuate 50 miles away from the site. Currently, an estimated 8.4 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the SONGS plant–within this radius are residents of Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino counties
Sure, there were the decades spent trying to build the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, but that remains problematic and unpopular, especially in Nevada. “Nevada has made very clear that its technical and legal objections will prevent Yucca Mountain from ever receiving spent fuel, so Congress should formally repeal the selection of Yucca Mountain as a repository site,” Don Hancock, the Nuclear Waste Program Director of the Southwest Research and Information Center, said during the hearing. While the Obama Administration rightfully ended licensing for that project years ago, President Donald Trump’s goal of trying to reverse everything Obama ever did means he wants to revive Yucca Mountain.
In the mean time, the waste sits in cooling pools at San Onofre and other shuttered reactors around the country. It’s supposedly safe there, but back in March, the NRC proposed a $116,000 fine to SONGS operator Southern California Edison after “a stainless steel canister containing nuclear waste was suspended on an internal ring for 45 minutes–and could have fallen 18 feet–while being lowered into a vault on the beach,” according to a Mar. 25 Courthouse News Service story.
“The radioactive material at the core of this challenge will outlast everyone in the room and all humans currently alive,” Rouda said. “It’s estimated that all of our nation’s nuclear waste will remain radioactive for somewhere between 100,000 and 1 million years.”
Click here to watch video footage of the hearing, and read PDFs of the hearing’s witness testimonies.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.