America’s Nuclear Waste Has Nowhere to Go and More Is Coming

The Pentagon recently announced plans to up the production of plutonium pits, a core component of nuclear weapons.
July 23, 2021, 1:00pm
GettyImages-1228769301
Image: Getty Images

Outside the sleepy Maine town of Wiscasset (population 3,700), armed guards patrol a slab of concrete surrounded by a chain link fence. On the slab is 60 cement and steel canisters containing 550 tons of nuclear waste with nowhere to go according to the Bangor Daily News

Advertisement

It’s a problem across the country. Nuclear power plants produce waste that’s stored on site in what’s billed as a temporary solution. After decades of promising to move the waste, the Department of Energy (DOE) hasn’t found a more permanent solution. And now, the Pentagon is moving forward with plans to increase the production of plutonium pits, a core component of nuclear weapons, which will produce more highly toxic and radioactive waste.

Nuclear power is incredibly efficient and produces little carbon. A move towards a world based on nuclear power would dramatically cut down on emissions that lead to climate change. But nuclear power produces nuclear waste, a variety of highly toxic substances that will take hundreds of years to become inert.

Nuclear power isn’t a silver bullet for our climate problems and there’s a host of issues with constructing new plants. The biggest of which is what to do with the waste. One of the most frequently proposed long term solutions is a geologic repository, a specially designed hole in the ground with thick barriers where large amounts of toxic waste can slowly degrade over hundreds of years. 

The problem is that no one can ever agree on where to build a giant and expensive hole to dump nuclear waste that will render the site unusable for generations. From Germany to America to Japan, efforts to build geologic repositories are met with political fights and constant delays.

Advertisement

In the U.S., Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and promised to create such a repository in 1982. This was supposed to be Yucca Mountain, a Nevada area mountain close to previous nuclear test sites. Construction began in the late 1980s but was never finished because of a complicated mix of fights with locals, changing standards in nuclear disposal, and presidential politics. The end result is temporary solutions like the one in Wiscasset where armed guards patrol radioactive sarcophaguses.

And now the Pentagon has major plans to crank up production of nuclear weapons, a process that would create tons of radioactive waste in service of weapons, not energy. It’s beating plowshares into swords. For decades, the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has shrunk. Between efforts of modernization, the design and deployment of new weapons, and fears of Russia and China’s nuclear arms, the trend is reversing.

America hasn’t been able to mass produce plutonium pits since it closed the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado in 1989. Now, the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) has an increased budget and is looking to spend that cash by ramping up production at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The plan is to get SRS pumping out 50 pits a year 2030, a project that could cost upwards of $11 billion.

Advertisement

“It’s important that the U.S. establish not just our production infrastructure, which is critically important, but that we sustain that intellectual leadership that really is a vital part of our deterrent,” Kim Budil, the director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, told the Associated Press in June.

According to Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch—a watchdog group in South Carolina that monitors the Savannah River Site and is suing the DOE over the proposed plutonium pits—the pits are a bad idea all around. 

“Besides creating a further risk to national security given that new pits would be used in new nuclear weapons, the pit project would create a lot of new nuclear waste that would be spread around the country,” Clements told Motherboard in an email. “SRS and the other waste disposal sites already face big challenges and no further waste should be created by DOE.”

The production of new plutonium pits creates a large amount of nuclear waste of various kinds. According to an Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed project by the NNSA, some of the waste would remain in South Carolina and the rest would be transported to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

Advertisement

“It appears that low-level waste would be left at SRS, with lasting impact,” Clements said. “But all the waste streams would have an impact somewhere. We also contend that WIPP does not have capacity for all the plutonium waste that could be designated for it. We want that issue and impacts of waste disposal at any site, whether a DOE site or a private site, further analyzed in the Programmatic EIS that we have repeatedly requested, which is the subject of our lawsuit.”

According to Clements, one problem is that the SRS already has a large amount of nuclear waste. “SRS has a large amount of high-level nuclear waste, created primarily from producing nuclear weapons materials such as plutonium, that must be managed,” he said. “We support removing the waste from the aging tanks, vitrifying it with glass and disposing of it in a geologic repository.  DOE has for decades failed to cite a repository so we'll see what happens next with that issue, which is always kicked down the road.”

Another issue with re-opening the Savannah River Site is the cost and the recent memory of nuclear boondoggles in South Carolina. The DOE previously spent $8 billion attempting to build a plutonium processing in South Carolina only to abandon the project—and a stockpile of plutonium—for decades. Now the DOE is talking about spending another $11 billion to get the abandoned site up and running.

"This could perhaps be one of the most expensive, and wasteful, construction projects in U.S. history,” Clements said. “The main goal of converting the plant into a bomb plant is for parochial political interests—to keep feeding vast amounts of taxpayer money into the pockets of contractors. The SRS pit plant contractors are of yet unknown, but many politicians are ready to shovel the money to them, which is the way that costly DOE projects always work.”

If the plant comes online, the waste will pile up. Much of it with no place to go. In Maine, they still guard the concrete tombs of radioactive waste with armed guards and given the half life of waste, they may be doing it for generations. “Fiscal conservatives, environmentalists and those concerned about national security should join arms and help kill the dirty and dangerous pit project at SRS,” Clements said.

Update: An earlier version of this story referred to the NNSA’s Environmental Impact Statement as an EPA report. We regret this error.