If you were freaked out by last year's disaster at Japan'sFukushima nuclear plants, or by Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, maybe you'd rather not think about all the toxic spent nuclear fuel being stored in Connecticut or just across the border in New York.
More than one-third of all Connecticut residents live within 50 miles of the reactors at Indian Point on the Hudson River, where (according to worried officials in this state) another bunch of spent fuel rods are stashed stored outside containment vessels.
A federal proposal to allow all this nuclear crap to remain where it is for at least another 60 years suffered a legal melt-down last month when a U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the idea. Connecticut, three other states and various environmental groups declared the ruling a victory for their effort to force the feds to come up with a real solution to the growing (and glowing) problem of nuclear waste.
The judges ruled the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hadn't done enough to evaluate the potential risks of accidents or attacks at these storage sites.
Meanwhile, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen last week came out against renewing the Indian Point plant's operating permit for another 20 years.
"An accident or attack at Indian Point that resulted in a release of radioisotopes could result in a major plume of wind-driven radioactive debris that would immediately impact human health and safety in Connecticut," Jepsen warned in his statement.
"There may not be a high percentage chance of something [like a Fukushima-style earthquake or flood] occurring," explains Jepsen, "but if there were an accident, it could be cataclysmic."
"We believe the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to deal with the spent nuclear fuel issue," says Jepsen. Politically, that's an interesting comment coming from a former Democratic state chairman concerning an administration under a Democratic president now running for reelection.
The federal dilemma is something that actually transcends partisan politics.
Back in the 1980s, the feds did come up with a nuke waste disposal plan and spent billions to design and start construction on a massive underground storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Residents of Las Vegas weren't at all happy with the idea of the nation's nuclear waste being permanently stashed in a hole in the ground about 100 miles from their casino metropolis.
The top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid, happens to be from Nevada. In 2010 he managed to get the Yucca Mountain project de-funded, and President Obama canceled the entire plan. So far, the feds have come up with nothing to replace it and the federal appeals court wasn't happy about that.
"The [Nuclear Regulatory] commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository," the judges wrote in their decision.
Until somebody comes up with a plan, the Connecticut's spent fuel (and everybody else's) will continue to sit where it is. Experts say there are now about 65,000 metric tons of nuke waste awaiting permanent disposal across the U.S. at about 75 power plants. U.S. power plant reactors generate more than 2,000 tons of additional radioactive waste every year, so the problem keeps expanding.
Federal and state officials and the operators of the still-running Millstone II and III plants in Waterford say the fuel is being stored as safely as possible.
The earthquake and tsunami flooding that triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima plant in Japan triggered orders that all U.S. plants be evaluated for their ability to withstand similar events. Operating plants are being required to put in or improve venting systems and spent fuel monitoring systems.
The Connecticut Yankee plant on the Connecticut River was shut down in 1996 and has now been dismantled. All 412 metric tons (the state's figures from 2011) of its nuclear waste is being stored in 43 dry concrete-and-steel "casks" on a three-foot-thick concrete slab.
More than 1,468 metric tons (also 2011 numbers) of spent fuel at Millstone are being contained in three fuel pools and a dry storage unit.
The kicker here is that Connecticut depends on the still-operating Millstone plants for more than half of this state's electricity. And those plants are (if you don't count the little waste disposal issue) way cleaner than power generators using oil, coal or even natural gas — which is a big deal in a state with air pollution as bad as Connecticut's.
The Obama administration has also been pushing nuclear energy as a way to reduce the U.S.'s addiction to foreign oil and to help clean up the air. Which means the waste problem is likely to get worse, not better.
Doing nothing isn't an option, according to a blue-ribbon federal commission report released earlier this year.
"The need for a new strategy is urgent," the report concluded, "because this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear material."