Nuclear waste: Disclose no evil

Maine Yankee Watch
By COLIN WOODARD  |  May 25, 2011

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After weeks of waiting, we have received some of the long-delayed monthly safety reports for Maine's high-level nuclear-waste facility at the former Maine Yankee Atomic Power Plant in Wiscasset. But it turns out that federal nuclear policy prevents the documents, missing since September of last year (see "Maine Nuke Reports Missing," by Colin Woodard, April 1), from revealing any serious problems to lawmakers or the public.

When we asked after the reports, back in March, in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, state nuclear safety officer Patrick Dostie told us the delay was due to a heavy workload — and, in any case, the missing reports were just as reassuringly mundane as their predecessors: a damaged lawn mower here, a clam digger trying to take a shortcut to the mud flats there, and a whole bunch of spent fuel slowly venting away its heat in strong, well-guarded sarcophagi.

This week three of the missing reports were finally released. But amid the wonderfully boring details — a contractor improperly storing a gas can, a fence being realigned to avoid false alarms from "transient environmental conditions" — there were three unusual items. All were facility condition reports that, as the reports put it, "were for security sensitive issues and are not available for public disclosure."

Maine Yankee spokesman Eric Howes said he could release no further information about the events — one in October and two in November — which the company has deemed to fall under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's ban on the release of "Safeguards Information."

"These are condition reports that fall under a definition that we can't disclose," Howes said. "Maine Yankee makes the determinations on a case-by-case basis, but there are other people in state government who are safeguards qualified and, depending on the nature of the issue, may be told on a 'need to know' basis."

The regulations in question cover a broad range of subjects — security plans, "site-specific details," details on guards and off-site strike teams, and anything else that, if released, "could reasonably be expected to have a significant adverse effect on the health and safety of the public or the common defense and security by significantly increasing the likelihood of sabotage or theft or diversion of source, byproduct, or special nuclear material."

While this may well be necessary, it does render the monthly reports rather useless as a means for policy makers and the public to evaluate if the spent-fuel facility is being properly run. Only the mundane, it seems, can actually be disclosed.

Still, former state senator Marge Kilkelly, co-chair of the Maine Yankee Community Advisory Committee, says she's confident the facility is "pretty benign." "If everything were disclosed, it might create opportunities" for terrorists and other malefactors, she said. "The fact that the feds, the state police, and others are involved on a need-to-know basis, and the fact the system is there means those of us on the periphery need to make some assumptions that if there's an issue it will be corrected."

Reports for January, February, and March are expected to be released shortly, for what they're worth.

Read the rule for yourself at nrc.gov.

  Topics: This Just In , power plant, nuclear power, Patrick Dostie
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