Long-term waste storage issue remains unresolved

By Bill Grant

Efforts are under way at the Minnesota Legislature to end a state ban on construction of new nuclear power plants. Nuclear power proponents have come to the Capitol armed with recent polling data showing that as the public’s memory of the near catastrophe at Three Mile Island and the very real catastrophe at Chernobyl have faded, people’s willingness to accept new nuclear plants has been rising.

This is not surprising, perhaps, but overlooks the fact that the very problem that gave rise to the ban in the first place — the need for permanent storage of radioactive waste — still has not been solved. Given this, now is not the time to revive nuclear power prospects in Minnesota.

After a multiyear process to identify a site for the deep geologic storage of nuclear waste, which included possible sites in northern Minnesota’s granite formations, the federal government settled on Yucca Mountain in Nevada for detailed study.

Many years and millions of dollars later, the Obama administration has pulled the plug on further funding for site characterization. Yucca Mountain’s isolated desert location, some 90 miles from Las Vegas, was once thought to be the perfect place to sequester the tons of nuclear waste produced annually by the nation’s 110 commercial nuclear power plants. But the team of scientists who spent years studying the site was unable to resolve concerns about storage in the seismically active mountain.


Minnesota receives nearly a quarter of its power from two nuclear power plants. With applications pending to extend the lives of these plants, nuclear power will likely be with us for the next 20 to 30 years. Some time ago, both plants ran out of room to store their waste inside the reactor buildings and are instead using large metal canisters for temporary storage on concrete pads near the plants. The metal canisters have a projected 100-year life, at which point, if geologic storage is still not available, another solution will be needed for the thousands of years the waste remains dangerously toxic.

Apart from the health and safety concerns, legislators should consider the nuclear option in context with recent decisions to ramp up the state’s investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Nuclear proponents point to all of the new jobs that would be created with the construction and operation of new plants. However, nuclear plants are much more capital intensive than they are labor intensive, and most of the capital leaves the state to purchase parts and equipment from vendors scattered across the country.

Since Minnesota does not have in-state uranium deposits, all of that money leaves the state as well, mostly for uranium purchased from overseas suppliers.

By contrast, wind, solar and biomass resources are all available within the state’s borders. Equipment manufacturers are increasingly inclined to locate facilities within the state to capture the markets created by our nation-leading renewable energy standard.

Jobs in the growing bioenergy markets are going to farmers and loggers right here in Minnesota. Energy efficiency investments are especially labor-intensive and go to manufacturers of advanced lighting equipment, manufacturers of highly efficient windows and other building components, and installers of insulation and other building weatherization materials. The money and jobs from these investments, for the most part, also stay right here at home.

Another line of argument for nuclear power advocates is that nuclear power releases no greenhouse gases. Let’s at least keep the nuclear option open, they argue, as a way to meet new demand and address the climate crisis. However, to be meaningful in the global warming context, nuclear power would need to do more than simply meet incremental growth in electrical demand.

To really tackle global warming, nuclear plants would need to meet both new demand and displace existing coal-fired power plants on a massive scale. This would involve the construction of thousands of new nuclear power plants here and around the world.


And in spite of the fact that we haven’t built a new nuclear plant in over 30 years, to prevent the worst impacts of rising temperatures these plants would need to be up and operating within the next 10 years. At a price tag estimated at several billion dollars per plant, investors and taxpayers would need to pony up trillions to chase this dream.

A decision to end the moratorium on nuclear power is at best a costly distraction from the task Minnesota legislators set in motion two years ago to invest heavily in home-grown renewable energy and energy efficiency. At worst, such a decision would consign Minnesota to the risks of nuclear power plants and nuclear waste for many decades or more.

Bill Grant is director of the Midwest office of the Izaak Walton League.

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