Entergy’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass. is currently stuck with more than 40 years of highly radioactive nuclear waste. The amount of waste is only going to increase up until the day it shuts down (no later than June 2019, but likely sooner).
Nuclear facilities generate large quantities of nuclear waste as a byproduct, which is expected to be highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). A proposed federal repository, Yucca Mountain, was supposed to be where all U.S. nuclear facilities sent their nuclear waste for long-term storage (both spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive wastes). However, the proposed storage site was cancelled in 2010, and there is currently no other alternative. For nuclear facilities around the country, including Pilgrim, nuclear waste will be stranded on-site for potentially hundreds of years, or even longer.
To deal with this problem in Plymouth, Entergy has constructed a nuclear waste storage facility, which already holds three casks that were loaded in early 2015 (Figure 1). As currently designed, the storage facility is located too close to the shoreline. The project begins only 106 feet from the shoreline and the storage pad is within approximately 175 feet. This is well within reach of rising seas, storm impacts, and other coastal hazards – creating risks of leaks and contamination from salt water degradation.
But what if Yucca were to happen someday? Or another federal repository was eventually approved? How would Pilgrim’s waste be shipped all the way to Nevada? The 2002 U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for Yucca Mountain addressed the issue of transportation, as well as all projected environmental impacts associated with construction, operation, and monitoring activities related to the Yucca repository.
When the FEIS was written in 2002, there were 72 commercial and 5 DOE nuclear sites in the U.S. that would need to ship nuclear waste to Yucca. As of January 2015, the number of commercially operating nuclear power plants was down to 61, with 99 nuclear reactors in 30 states.
For transportation, DOE’s FEIS identifies a ‘mostly rail’ preferred action that would primarily use rail services to ship nuclear waste both nationally and within Nevada. DOE would be in charge of transporting shipments (with the exception of six sites that do not have the capability to load a rail cask) by rail to Nevada. See Figure 2 below for an artist’s rendition of a rail cask, from Appendix J of DOE’s FEIS. This preferred ‘mostly rail’ action also assumes that 17 commercial nuclear plants could use barges to ship rail casks to a nearby railroad service. These 17 sites are located on or near navigable waterways, and lack direct railroad service. This includes Pilgrim.
The FEIS does not specifically analyze a transportation accident involving contamination of surface water or groundwater since DOE assumed airborne contamination would be the greatest threat in the case of an accident. However, for Pilgrim, DOE’s plan is to have up to 24 barges containing the large radioactive waste containers cross Cape Cod Bay, Mass. Bay, and Boston Harbor to Boston, where they would then be loaded onto rail cars heading to Nevada. See Figure 3 below for DOE’s map.
The barges would likely follow one of two paths: either a recommended Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) in the western part of Cape Cod Bay (see solid red line in map below) or a path hugging the Massachusetts coast (red dotted line; see Figure 4). The recommended TSS route is intended to reduce North Atlantic right whale ship strikes from vessels like bulk carriers, container ships, passenger vessels, barges, cargo ships, and tankers that are heading to Boston. Both paths are just west of right whale critical habitat.
The problem with DOE’s plan to send up to 24 barges through Cape Cod Bay and Massachusetts Bay is that accidents can and do happen, and the consequences for our coastal resources could be severe.
According to Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), the NRC’s design criteria for the transport containers is insufficient. Only scale model tests and computer simulations have been done to test the safety of transport casks; no full-scale safety testing has been done at all. The NRC assumes, based on these tests, that even if a cask (or casks) ended up in the Atlantic Ocean it would remain undamaged, no leaks would occur, and it could be recovered. The NRC “tested” the transport casks underwater for up to 8 hours of submersion, but the reality is that it could take much longer than 8 hours to recover a 100-140 ton cask (or many casks) from the bottom of the ocean. If the simulated tests are wrong, or the casks stay submerged in salt water for longer than 8 hours, leaks are certainly possible. Not only could critically endangered right whales be in trouble, but so could the entire ecosystem of Cape Cod Bay and the economy of Massachusetts.
While Yucca Mountain likely will never happen, there could be a temporary site in the future that would require a similar type of transportation plan. According to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in a Nov. 26, 2015 Boston Globe article, “We don’t think Yucca Mountain will be a viable approach.” But Moniz and his staff are reviewing a proposal to build a temporary site in Andrews County, Texas. This site already hosts two radioactive waste disposal facilities. This new Texas location – or any other federal repository that is developed in the future – will face the same transportation concerns and challenges as Yucca Mountain. These issues will first have to be dealt with before any nuclear waste ever leaves Plymouth. At minimum, this could take decades to happen.
 U.S. DOE. 2002. FEIS for a Geologic Repository for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada. (See FEIS Volume II, Appendix J, Transportation).