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U.S. energy secretary visits Connecticut, says spent nuclear fuel problem 'has to be resolved'

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, right, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, second from right, tour the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, Conn., Friday, May 20, 2022.
Jennifer McDermott
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, right, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, second from right, tour the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, Conn., Friday, May 20, 2022.

America’s top energy official was in Connecticut Friday to promote the state’s burgeoning offshore wind industry and its decades-old nuclear program.

The visit comes at the invitation of the local congressional member who is working to solve a decades-long stalemate over how nuclear facilities across the country store their waste.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney toured the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford Friday morning. Nuclear waste from that plant has been piling up in Connecticut and waste from other plants has plagued communities nationwide.

“We believe this issue has to be resolved,” Granholm said, in an interview with Connecticut Public. “The communities that raised their hand to put nuclear facilities in their geographic boundaries did not raise their hand to store permanently, the spent nuclear fuel, and we are seeking to get a solution to that sooner rather than later.”

Spent nuclear fuel that was meant to be stored temporarily at current and former nuclear plant sites across America has been caught in limbo, because no federal storage solution has emerged despite years of debate. A plan to build a national storage facility northwest of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain was mothballed because of staunch opposition from most Nevada residents and officials.

The Biden administration and many state officials view nuclear energy as essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and staving off the worst effects of a warming planet.

To responsibly use nuclear power, Courtney said, “We have to move on this issue.”

Granholm said “nuclear must be a part of the zero-carbon future” and that the Department of Energy is working “to identify a consent-based community that is willing to be able to take on the spent nuclear fuel.”

She said the process started last December with a request for information to communities interested in having a conversation about the issue. “We got about 200 responses, and I’m not saying that all of them are positive – but we got about 200 responses to our request for information and we are beginning the conversations there.”

Granholm declined to specify which specific communities her department was in conversations with, but said, “I do think that there are communities across the country that have been doing nuclear research that are more accepting and embracing of nuclear energy that are willing to at least have that conversation. Of course, you have to reimburse communities that are willing to do this.”

Several towns and organizations from Connecticut responded to the request for information including the Town of Waterford, the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments (SCCOG), and Republican State Representative Kathleen McCarty, who represents Waterford.

“While Waterford residents appreciate the contributions of Millstone Power Station, I know that neither they, nor the Town would support accepting Millstone Power Station as a storage location from other locations,” McCarty wrote.

Despite some of this spent fuel dating back to the 1980s, Graholm expressed optimism that the issue could soon be resolved.

“Those conversations are ongoing and we hope that we will be able to narrow it down and identify a place in the next couple of years,” Granholm said.

Tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel, with no permanent home

There's roughly 89,000 metric tons of used commercial fuel at nearly 80 sites in 35 U.S. states, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade association. At 20 of the sites, there's no longer an operating reactor, the institute said.

All of that spent fuel, in storage containers, could theoretically fit into a large distribution warehouse for a big box store, said Rod McCullum, the institute's senior director of decommissioning and used fuel. It could be much more efficiently managed if it was consolidated, he added.

Millstone seals its spent nuclear fuel in massive stainless steel canisters on what used to be a parking lot and keeps it in pools that cool it. There’s room for 135 casks. Fifty-two casks have been installed, of which 47 are full, according to plant owner Dominion Energy.

Courtney's district also includes the site of the former Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Haddam Neck. Connecticut Yankee closed in 1996. Spent fuel is still stored on valuable waterfront real estate.

“The frustration in Waterford and Haddam Neck, it has been off the charts,” Courtney said. “People feel, you know, this was not the deal when these plants were built."

Congress has provided about $40 million to fund the consent-based siting process that would be used to identify sites to store the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, and the administration asked for $53 million more for fiscal 2023, Courtney said.

Granholm said she didn’t think the storage question was hindering development of smaller-scale nuclear reactors across the country.

“These small modular reactors – advanced nuclear reactors – even the micro-reactors, first of all, they have less waste,” Granholm said. “But also, people see them as an opportunity … for communities that may be transitioning away from coal.”

Granholm cited the example of TerraPower which is building a small nuclear reactor on top of a retiring coal plant in Wyoming.

“The folks in Wyoming are very excited about being able to have jobs that are surrounding that plant,” Granholm said.

“But it still doesn’t negate the need, of course, to identify the permanent solution for spent nuclear waste,” she said.

‘The cheapest fuel is the fuel you don’t use’

Following a visit to Storrs, Granholm said the Department of Energy will partner with UConn to train students to go into small-and-medium sized manufacturing facilities in Connecticut and do energy usage assessments.

The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated $500 million for these “Industrial Assessment Centers,” which leverage university-based teams across the nation to conduct no-cost energy usage assessments for local industry.

Granholm said the idea is to make the industrial sector more efficient and cut costs for business. Efficiency “is not as hot of a topic as solar, wind or hydrogen,” she said, “but it’s so necessary, because, of course, the cheapest fuel is the fuel you don’t use.”

Offshore wind as the ‘holy grail’ of public policy

The Secretary’s Friday visit concluded with a trip to State Pier in New London. Officials said the port is expected to begin constructing turbines for offshore wind farms in about one year.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy called offshore wind the “holy grail” of public policy.

“Offshore wind gets you tons of jobs in the short term, it gets you tons of local economic development in the long-run. It makes the country more secure, and it helps the planet,” Murphy said.

At State Pier, Granholm was joined by Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Murphy and representatives from Ørsted, Eversource, and Kiewit Infrastructure Co., all of whom are working to redevelop the location to support New England’s nascent offshore wind industry.

Members of the building and construction trades, as well as state and municipal leaders were also in attendance.

This story contains information from the Associated Press.

Copyright 2022 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.
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