Currently, most radioactive wastes are stored in temporary facilities near power plants—including Browns Ferry—in spent pools. At Browns Ferry, like many other sites, throughout the U.S., a new dry cask storage area is being constructed for temporary storing of spent fuel rods. Waste will be stored in stainless steel canisters, then encased in casks of concrete several layers thick and anchored down on pads designed with public safety in mind.
One long-range alternative would eliminate radioactive wastes by rocketing them toward the sun. Another would postpone any action for as long as 15 years, while solutions are considered and the waste piles up.
One of the more promising ideas is a reprocessing method widely applied in France, an outgrowth of non-proliferation treaties covering uranium weapons disposal. Reprocessing lowers the chances of plutonium falling into the hands of terrorists.
Plutonium is separated from spent nuclear fuel and mixed with uranium to make what is called MOX, mixed oxide fuel that can then be re-loaded into current reactors. Much of Japan’s nuclear waste is transported to France for such processing.
Some waste from U.S. nuclear weapons testing is also being shipped to France; then it is sent back for use in nuclear plants. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is in final deliberations over the construction of a MOX processing facility in South Carolina.
The DOE has spent millions of dollars in research to test the viability and safety of storing nuclear wastes in an underground central U.S. repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. IBEW members have aided the research.
Between 80 and 100 IBEW Local 357, Las Vegas inside wiremen worked on the Yucca Mountain during exploratory tunneling eight years ago. They wired heating elements that simulated the temperatures of radioactive waste to determine its effect on surrounding rock during a four-year trial.
Aerial view of the crest of Yucca Mountain
Yucca Mountain is 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas on federal nuclear weapons testing grounds larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Local 357 Business Manager David Jones says that residents of Nevada are concerned about nuclear wastes being transported through the state on the way to their burial. "Even some of the traditional friends of labor in elected office can’t come out and support the waste facility and its potential job creation without committing political suicide," says Jones.
Proponents of Yucca Mountain share the concerns of Nevada residents about safe and secure rail transportation. The IBEW, a member of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, is actively lobbying for additional federal funding for rail security. The TTD and others point out that since September 11, the federal budget for transportation safety is skewed in favor of airline safety. For example, expenditures support 45,000 air safety screeners, but only 100 surface transportation inspectors.
P.J. Crowley, a former special assistant on national security under President Bill Clinton, says that the U.S. must reduce both the number of sites of nuclear waste storage and the potential for attacks on transportation.
The Yucca Mountain project is now on hold, possibly for as long as two years. If the project survives, it won’t be on line until 2012. State and federal officials are battling in court over the plan, with the state trying to deny water to Yucca Mountain to derail the construction. Opposition to the project was bolstered in March, when it was revealed that a federal employee might have falsified documents relating to the safety of the operation.
Local 357 member Dave Koonce performed electrical maintenance on the mining machinery that cut more than seven miles of tunnels through Yucca’s volcanic rock between 1995 and 1998. As the tunneling progressed, concrete floors were poured to accommodate railroad tracks.
Koonce returned to work at Yucca Mountain in 2001. One of 17 IBEW members on the site, he wires lights in the tunnels and upgrades the site’s fire prevention and alarm systems. Visitors arrive weekly from all over the world to tour the site.
"You read about all the negative aspects of Yucca Mountain," he says, but "I see how strong a safety program there is here—even before any waste is deposited—from the highly-trained security personnel right up to the no-fly zone over the site."
If the safety considerations and political consensus end up supporting the $56 billion Yucca Mountain project, 400 to 600 IBEW electricians would be assigned to construct and maintain more lighting and alarm systems and to assemble buildings for receiving canisters of arriving wastes.
IBEW’s skilled labor, currently on display at Browns Ferry and Yucca Mountain, is a key element in the whole gamut of U.S. energy production. From wiring wind turbines and erecting solar panels, to operating coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants to nuclear waste transport and disposal, IBEW members are where the action is.
President Edwin Hill says: "Our members who work in the energy industry are concerned with more than a paycheck. We live in the communities where we work and, like most Americans, we care about our environment."
"No group," says Hill, "has any greater interest in safe and secure nuclear power facilities and safe waste disposal than does the IBEW."
For an excellent debate and discussion on the future of nuclear power, visit www.americanprogress.org and search "Events" for the transcript of "Nuclear Power: What Does the Future Hold?"