Imagine letting your garbage pile up day after day, year after year, decade after decade.
Imagine not having a dump to drop it in where a blanket of dirt will magically make it go away.
If your garbage is nuclear waste (and in the Tennessee Valley much of it is), you don't have to imagine this nightmare. It's real.
With three nuclear plants near Chattanooga, we have more than 3,590 metric tons of highly radioactive spent fuel and fuel rods on the sites of Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Browns Ferry nuclear plants. About 70 percent of it is in pool storage - which is just what it sounds like: a swimming pool-like pit of water-covered spent fuel rods. Each of our six reactors has a pool that sits in a metal roofed structure not unlike an airplane hanger. Try not to think about a monster F-5 tornado spinning by. It will make your head hurt.
The nuclear waste from the electricity you use is sitting beside the Tennessee River in Soddy-Daisy and Spring City in Tennessee and Athens, Ala. Some of it is in pools, and some of it is in casks - giant canisters that cost about $1 million each. The canisters hold waste that's cooled for about five years or more, and in the cans the waste is said to be safe for another 100 years. The waste won't be safe without some sort of containment for centuries more, however.
So Soddy-Daisy, Spring City and Athens are our own little localized Yucca Mountains - just nowhere near as safe, secure or secluded.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the three nuclear plants, would prefer not to be in the nuclear waste storage business. TVA has paid up to $53 million a year for more than four decades to the U.S. Department of Energy Waste Policy Act fund so the government could prepare a real Yucca Mountain-like "permanent storage" facility.
"We, like every other nuclear operator, are looking for a national solution. And we continue to wait," said TVA spokesman Jim Hopson. In the meantime, TVA keeps the waste safe.
The fund-fee nuclear operators have paid and passed on to us electricity customers added up to about $750 million a year for decades. About $9.5 billion was withdrawn to study and begin the Yucca Mountain work, and the waste policy fund now holds about $37 billion. But there's still no Yucca Mountain - just local nuclear trash dumps like ours - and about 100 others around the nation. One for every U.S. reactor.
The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, as designated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987, was to be a deep repository built into a ridge line in the south-central part of Nevada near the California border. It was approved in 2002 by Congress, but with strong opposition in Nevada, funding was terminated on April 14, 2011, by Congress.
Although activists had argued for years that the site was unsafe, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report stated the closure was for political, not technical or safety reasons.
TVA sued the U.S. Department of Energy for recovery of some the money the utility had spent to buy dry storage casks and cask storage pads at Sequoyah and Browns Ferry when there was no longer pool storage capacity at those plants. The utility has received just under $120 million.
Electricity customers won't be so lucky. The Energy Department stopped charging the fee by court order on Friday. The amount is only a small percentage of most customers' bills, about $2 a year for a typical U.S. residential customer.
But we won't get a refund. The latest Energy Department strategy, laid out in a report last year, is to have a site designed by 2042 and built by 2048 using the money in the fund.
Meanwhile, TVA will continue to have nowhere else to place growing amounts of nuclear waste except on site in Soddy-Daisy, Spring City and Athens.
Two years ago, TVA contracted to buy up to about 150 more dry storage casks. The casks are thought to be safer than pool storage, and especially after Fukushima. Since then, activists and industry officials called for moving waste out of the pools as soon as safety permits.
But on Wednesday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected a call to force expedited transfers. The NRC's northeast regional administrator said the agency had concluded that both spent fuel pools and dry casks were "adequate storage processes for spent fuel, and there is not a significant safety benefit to requiring full transfer to dry cask storage."
In short, the government has stopped work on Yucca Mountain, has no new permanent storage site proposed and isn't going to set a policy for speedier safe plant site storage.
That pretty much makes every nuclear facility - including our plants - a nuclear waste dump.