The debate over what to do with the spent fuel generated by US nuclear power plants has dragged on for decades. Now, due to lawmakers’ indecisiveness, Illinois will be dumped with the nuclear waste, Bloomberg reports.

With no permanent depository to send waste to, nuclear power plants in 30 US states have begun doubling as storage facilities for radioactive nuclear waste that remains potentially harmful for over 1,000 years.

About 13 percent of America’s approximate 70,000 metric tons of radioactive nuclear waste is already stored in Illinois, according to data from the Nuclear Energy Institute. Illinois is home to 9,010 metric tons of used nuclear fuel, more than any other state.

Nuclear waste is stored in water inside of concrete constructions called “spent fuel pools.” According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “As the pools near capacity, utilities move some of the older spent fuel into ‘dry cask’ storage… The NRC believes spent fuel pools and dry casks provide adequate protection of the public health and safety of the environment.”

Last year, the US Department of Energy (DOE) was given a deadline of January 18 to justify receiving $750 million a year for the creation of a permanent depository, though none has been developed. According to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the government has collected over $30 billion in payments and interest for a permanent storage facility.

In September 2013, that debate was still ongoing. Three Republican-appointed judges on a Court of Appeals argued that the DOE had not met its obligations to have a repository up and running by 1998, and did not deserve to keep receiving funds to work on a solution.

Originally, lawmakers planned to construct the depository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. In 2010, the Obama administration cut funding for that plan, which had been in place since 1987, but never implemented.

Last year, Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s nuclear future recommended that work be started on a temporary storage site. Their report stated that “Regardless of what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally emplaced” at that site. “Under current law, the United States will need to find a new disposal site even if Yucca Mountain goes forward.”

When accidents or natural disasters occur, as with the tsunami in Fukushima, nuclear reactor meltdowns and the heating up of radioactive waste in the spent fuel pools can cause serious levels of radioactive substances to be released into the environment.

The amount of radiation released over several months from the Fukushima disaster is equivalent to “more than 29 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs and the amount of uranium released is equivalent to 20 Hiroshima bombs,” Dr. Tatsuhiko Kodama, a professor at the Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology and Director of the University of Tokyo's Radioisotope Centre, told Aljazeera.

According to Jurist, if an accident like Fukushima were to occur in the US, the repercussions would be worse because US plants keep higher quantities of spent fuel on-site, due to a lack of a permanent depository.

In the US, 75 percent of spent fuel is stored in pools, which are considerably more dangerous than dry casks. The Institute for Policy Studies reports that “Even though they contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, U.S. spent nuclear fuel pools are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements.” Robert Alvarez, a Senior Scholar with IPS, states:

For nearly 30 years, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) waste-storage requirements have remained contingent upon the opening of a permanent waste repository that has yet to materialize… In protecting America from nuclear catastrophe, safely securing the fuel spent by eliminating highly radioactive, crowded pools should be a public safety priority of the highest degree. With a price tag of as much as $7 billion, the cost of fixing America’s nuclear vulnerabilities may sound high, especially given the heated budget debate occurring in Washington. But the price of doing too little is incalculable.

Used Nuclear Fuel in Storage

Via: Nuclear Energy Institute 

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.