Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tomthemick@gmail.com

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How Much Will It Really Cost?

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.

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15 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It will be a cold dark place when they ban Nuclear Plants and the EPA bans fossil fuels or we run out of them, and when no one wants to pay to get solar power working. This is not a criticism of what Tom said, just a cautionary note for the future.

3/23/11, 10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...as big as the Obamacare bill"

How cool for Obama that the Health care bill is referred to by his name. What a nice way to celebrate his accomplishment and have his name remembered by future generations enjoying decent health care. A legacy that he is sure to be proud of...a rare example of right-wingers showing respect and giving credit.

3/23/11, 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, was Tom actually showing concern for the environment and peoples health over profit for Big Business?!!??

Or is he simply worried about his beloved Big Oil and Coal tycoons and the loss of pollution and devestation that will come with their elimination?

3/23/11, 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Coop's said...

After watching what is going on in Japan, and it is far from over, there is absolutely no need for such a risk.
I believe there are something like 105 nuclear power plants in the USA and they generate only 20% of our power. We have remote control car on mars. I think we can figure out a safer way to power our homes.

Furthermore, I find the current attitude toward radiation in this country very alarming. People in California who have legitimate concerns are being painted as "crazy and Paranoid" conspiracy theorists by the mainstream media. All the while, traces of radiation are being detected along the west coast.
Plants and fish are already being declared unsafe to eat within 100 miles of the Fukishima plant.

I am glad you stood up to them Tom. This is really a no brainer--actually, I can't believe people are considering it.

3/23/11, 3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it Ironic that all the Carrol County Democrat skippies are out in force against Tom even when he agrees with them on this issue. I remember seeing Tom at a couple of those meetings that I attended and my impression of him then was that he was fairly liberal. He has changed quite a bit since then but it's plain to see that the Rebel with out a clue Skippies have not. Attack, Attack, Attack. We are not sure what it is that "we" are against, but hell it's him so we're against it. I don't know how else to sum up what I've read here so far.

I can't wait to read what you write on Libya and what the Skippies have to say about that one

3/23/11, 9:13 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Anon has seen liberals against Tom on this issue? I wonder where he saw that. Can Anon come back and let us know where?

3/24/11, 10:01 AM  
Anonymous Winston Smith said...

How about the mainstream media's handling of the situation in Japan?
It seems there is not a lot of truth being told? I wonder if it has anything to do with GE Westinghouse building the reactors and there interests in national media?

3/24/11, 6:30 PM  
Anonymous mr ed said...

A good read Tom.

I was a nuclear supporter, until watching Japan get washed away.

When the power goes off these plants will melt down, the idea that there will always be someone there to keep them running is false. Unless that fact can be changed, I don't know how we can build new plants or justify the existing.

3/25/11, 4:37 AM  
Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...

Yes, Mr. Ed. It's as if we've created a Frankenstein's monster that we cannot kill and we must guard in perpetuity so it doesn't kill us.

We've monkeyed around with the fundamental forces involved in the creation of the universe without thinking it all through. We believe we'll eventually figure it all out, but I'm not so sure.

3/25/11, 6:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see conservatives getting in on the hippies No Nukes movement of the 70's!!!

3/25/11, 12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many of those spent fuel rod cells were washed out into the ocean?

3/25/11, 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear La Page thinks nuclear storage in Maine would be a great way to bring jobs to the state! We could use our lakes to store the spend fuel rods while we hand dig the holes during a seven day work week. 

3/26/11, 8:41 AM  
Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...

Winston Smith,

I don't believe the Japanese government is offering the whole story to the media. Would GE be exerting influence over its media holdings like NBC? Could be. I"m not sure, but word would still get out eventually. There's just too much media out there now to hide anything as big as radiation releases for too long in this era.

3/26/11, 1:50 PM  
Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...

Anonymous whomever,

I don't think fuel rods were swept out to sea, no. There have been nuclear submarine disasters in our oceans though. The USS Thresher off New England, and two Russian subs - one in the Atlantic off Norway and one in the Pacific somewhere.

Could there have been more we don't know about? Sure. I haven't heard of any damage to the environment from any of the subs leaking radiation yet. I suppose it's inevitable that they would leak however.

3/26/11, 1:54 PM  
Anonymous mr ed said...

I see they have detected radiation in the milk from WA and CA and Obama gets on the TV and tells us we need to embrace Nukes to stop carbon and global warming

The SHTF discussions across the web mostly talk about stocking up with food water guns ammo etc. Well if the SHTF who is going to be cooling the Nuke plants?

At least a coal plant will burn out instead of meltdown, clean coal is the way to go.

4/1/11, 3:32 AM  

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