Back in the 1980s, The US Department of Energy had plans to bury “high-level nuclear waste” in the form of spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants in the eastern United States - under the towns of southern and western Maine and eastern New Hampshire. My own town of Lovell was on the northern edge of the site they were considering. Recent events in Japan have brought it all back to me.
I was in my first term on Lovell’s Board of Selectmen when volumes of bound studies as big as the Obamacare bill arrived at our town office in January, 1986 as well as every other town between Lovell and Westbook, Maine and Conway, New Hampshire. I didn’t know much about nuclear power and neither did most other town officials, so I went to an impromptu informational meeting somebody called at Lake Region High School in Naples, Maine. Interesting people from all over southern Maine appeared and lined up at the microphone.Guys who had served on nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers explained what they knew. Retired geologists familiar with what was under the ground in our part of the world explained gave their opinions. Retired federal employees explained what they knew. Guys who had been drilling wells all over the area explained what they’d discovered - and they all kept it simple enough for lay people to understand. Mostly, I sat and listened, very impressed by how many bright people from varied backgrounds lived quiet lives in rural Maine, and how well everyone cooperated to deal with this threat to the land we all called home.The "pluton" is light-colored on this portion of the 1985 Bedrock Geologic Map of Maine
The DOE (US Department of Energy) was implementing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act which had become law in 1982 and directed the DOE to find a “high-level nuclear waste repository” somewhere east of the Mississippi in which to “dispose” of all those spent fuel rods crowding storage pools in dozens of nuclear power plants. They said there was a “pluton” under the ground here at least 1500 meters thick, and it was flawless. It was contiguous. It had no cracks or seams. Vertical shafts could be cut down 1000 meters and lateral shafts could be cut horizontally. Spent fuel rods could be stored in those shafts deep down there and be safe for 10,000 years.
The more we studied their proposal, the more flabbergasted we became. We knew the “pluton” under us had lots of cracks in it because most of us had sunk wells into it and had been using the water that flowed through those cracks for years. It was anything but flawless. How could the DOE insist it was a seamless mass of granite? Were they fools? Did they think we were? This “pluton” underlay Sebago Lake - Portland’s water supply.
Other informational meetings were held. Thousands more came to learn and become outraged at what the federal government proposed for our state. Television cameras were set up, and wherever there were crowds and cameras, there were politicians. Whoever was running for governor, congress or the state legislature showed up to make speeches that didn’t seem to help much. Ironically, local citizen’s groups here in Maine adopted the yellow Gadsden Flag with the coiled snake saying “DON’T TREAD ON ME,” which is, of course, the same one citizens’ groups protesting big government and calling themselves “The Tea Party” have adopted. We especially liked it because the “ME” at the end is the postal abbreviation for Maine. I’ve had mine hanging right under the American flag in my classroom for twenty-five years.Reluctantly, DOE bureaucrats came to Maine and Conway, New Hampshire, conducted their hearings, and felt our wrath. From January to April, I was out at least three or four nights a week at meetings and hearings or organizing opposition. At one of those meetings in Casco, Maine on the night of April 26, 1986, we heard about the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Kiev in the Ukraine. Right after that, the US Department of Energy abruptly discontinued its search for an eastern repository for its nuclear waste. The issue was too politically hot for the federal government to handle. The "Eastern Repository" idea was shelved and the DOE concentrated on "disposing" its waste inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada. We were off the hook. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, however, had the Yucca Mountain site in his home state of Nevada killed last year. The DOE is back to square one.
The still-unsolved problem of what to do with nuclear waste is the Achille’s heel of the nuclear industry. Today, just as liberal and conservative politicians in America are actively considering nuclear power again, Japan is shining a light on it for the world to see. It’s their spent-fuel-rod pool they’re having the most trouble with at this writing. When nuclear powered electric generation was introduced in the 1950s, some said it would be virtually free - too cheap to meter. Today, we still don’t know how much it really costs per kilowatt hour because we don’t know the expense of storing those mounting spent fuel rods or disposing of them - if we ever figure out how.