Location: Bowdoin / Environmental Studies / Student Research / Telling Environmental Stories / Lindsay A. Urquhart

Environmental Studies

Lindsay A. Urquhart

Lindsay A. Urquhart Invisible on the Coast of Maine:
Maine Yankee and its High Level Nuclear Waste

The first thing one notices perched atop a rusted steel ladder in a rocking wooden sailboat is the motion.  A minor swell at sea level feels, up top, like a tsunami has passed underneath the boat.  At least this was my first thought as I attempted to place my sailboat's mainsail rigging back through the top of the mast in July of 2004.  I was working as a counselor for the Chewonki Foundation when Robbie, one of my twelve year old campers, had let this halyard unreave from the mast head.   With a giggle and a buck-toothed smile he told me that he simply "forgot to hold onto it."   Silently remarking that such cherubic features must have serious survival advantages, I asked him to help me fix the problem.   We were anchored off Swan Island in Merrymeeting Bay in mid-coast Maine and fickle lady luck led us to an aged ladder lying under the leaves in the middle of the island.   Not ones to question good fortune, we placed the ladder across our dinghy like a pair of wings, and rowed out to our sailboat so I could reach the pulleys at the top of the mast.   Seeing the unforgiving wooden deck far below me was unnerving but in order to finish our journey back to Chewonki we had to find a solution.

The Chewonki Foundation, based in Wiscasset, Maine does many things.   Besides running a summer camp since 1918 and leading wilderness trips throughout Maine it has a junior high school semester program and public environmental education courses.   Chewonki is a Native American term meaning, "a place of turning."  Here in Wiscasset it refers to the tumultuous tides that pull in and out of Montsweag Bay twice every day but I also like to think it refers to the positive changes Chewonki brings out in its disciples.   All Chewonki literature states that they are dedicated to "fostering an appreciation for the natural world and for working in community with others."  Working there for several years as a summer camp counselor, I have been able to live this mission.  Few things compare with the look of joy on a child's face when he surfaces after capsizing his first canoe or seeing your group support itself to reach a distant summit.  To this day I am unsure how one or two months of living in a close community on the coast of Maine while becoming an intimate friend with nature and counting your flashlight as a modern amenity can better a person.  But it does, and it does so repeatedly.

Maine has more coastline for its area than most other states in the union and nature seems to have taken full advantage of this oddity.   Glacial activity has marked this region of Maine with north and south running bays and rivers like fingers carving channels through wet sand at the beach.  Consequently, were you to sail to the Chewonki peninsula from Swan Island you would be forced to travel south through Merrymeeting Bay which lies adjacent to the town of Brunswick.  The large town is home to 20,000 people and Bowdoin College which will soon become my beloved alma mater.  Sailing south from the bay you would travel down the powerful and tidal Kennebec River and past the historic town of Bath, a ship building town which maintains its legacy via Bath Iron Works, which has made ships for the navy since 1884.   Brunswick and Bath and other towns like them in Maine are hotspots for visitors during the summer months, as tourists search for some truth behind Maine's maxim, "the way life should be."   From Bath you would navigate east through the narrow and swift Sasanoa river into beautiful Hockomock Bay, just north of where my family has vacationed for years.   Pine-covered strips of land in all directions separate the blue sky from the dark saltwater.  The natural beauty of the landscape contrasts with the difficult sailing you must execute.  The shallow tidal bay restricts your maneuverability as you sail north to Chewonki through Montsweag Bay.  You must use all of your senses to navigate.  You feel the boat gently healing under you with every gust.   The mainsail's sheet strains in your hand as you look at the water for obstacles, harbor seals, and the sight of wind on the water.   You listen to the wind in the rigging and can feel it change course in your hair and on your ears.   Every inconsistency is easily discernable when the boat becomes an extension of your body.   You see the Chewonki peninsula in the distance which, from above, looks like a right hand, supine position, pointed south.  To reach Chewonki you must pass near Bailey point less than a mile to the east.   While a small and unassuming peninsula, Bailey point has a large story to tell.

At this point in our return journey, Robbie, who was on the helm, looked over at me quizzically and pointed to a shapely concrete dome visible above the trees on Bailey point.  My response surprised him.

The concrete structure was the containment dome for the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company which operated from 1972-1996, producing119 billion kilowatts of power for Maine and New England.  It was a very important member of the Wiscasset community during its operation, producing 90% of the town's tax income and employing around 450 people.   It survived three state-wide referendums put forth to close the plant in 1980, '87, and '92.   In fact, it would be age and not public opinion which would eventually close the plant's doors.   It was initially shut down in 1995 due to cracks in its steam generator tubes and never recovered.   The board of trustees voted to commence dismantling the plant on August 6, 1997, at which point it was only the third nuclear plant in the country to undergo the decommissioning process.   Just two months after sailing by the reactor dome in 2004, it was imploded and carted away via train, signaling the end of the power plant and the beginning of a nuclear waste legacy.

In October of 2007, during my senior year at Bowdoin, I traveled to Chewonki to speak with Don Hudson, the president of the foundation, about their neighbor of thirty-five years.  The drive from Brunswick to Wiscasset usually only takes thirty minutes but it had been raining all day and by the time I arrived at Chewonki, it was a veritable deluge outside.  I shuffled into the "farm house," which contains all of the foundation's offices, with my pad of paper under my soaked raincoat and mud on my sandals.   Don was waiting for me inside in jeans and a black fleece jacket.  "Hmmm," he said looking me up and down, "feel free to go and get some tea."

A man of medium-build, with a dark mustache, short graying hair, large gold-rimmed "grandmother" glasses, and an even larger smile, Don Hudson first came to Chewonki as a twelve-year-old camper in 1962 and has not left since.   He worked as a counselor for many years starting in 1966 and up through his time at Dartmouth College where he received a Bachelors degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.   After receiving a Masters and a Ph.D. in botany, he became head naturalist at Chewonki in 1982, executive director in 1991, and president in 1997.  He was eighteen when Maine Yankee first started building the power plant on Bailey point.

When I returned to his office with a cup of earl grey in my hands, he and I sat down at a table in the middle of his office across from a massive portrait leaning against the wall.  Clarence Allen, Chewonki's founder, reposed in a verdant field looking sidelong at us, monitoring our conversation.  Besides being a botanist, Don is also an avid ornithologist.   In fact, it seems that what little room in his office isn't devoted to his own personal library, which includes one entire wall, several tables, and a significant portion of the floor, is covered with loon and osprey statues, pictures, paintings and even a colorfully feathered bird mask by his door.  In one of life's surprising coincidences, it was the osprey, a Maine raptor and Chewonki's mascot, which facilitated Don's first professional contact with Maine Yankee.

In 1992, some ospreys had taken to nesting on the yard crane at Maine Yankee, preventing the workers from using the crane to switch out the nuclear fuel within the reactor core.  "None of the workers would go up there because they were getting dive-bombed by the ospreys," Don told me while plunging his hand, osprey-style, to the table top, "…so I gave them some advice… It was good for us to establish some kind of working relationship."  Indeed it was.

Don became more intimately involved with Maine Yankee soon after the permanent shutdown of the plant.  If the construction of Maine Yankee was a quiet operation, the decommissioning would prove to be anything but.  In expectation of this and the public's desire to know details about the closing of an integral part of Maine's infrastructure, the company's management decided to form a Community Advisory Panel (CAP) to, in the words of the CAP's charter, "enhance open communication, public involvement and education on Maine Yankee decommissioning issues." "It was something that was really brand new to the nuclear industry," Don explains.

With the honey in my tea becoming visible at the bottom of my cup, Don leaned back in his wooden chair away from his untouched mug of coffee.   He was chosen to be one of the twenty-five CAP members because he simply "represented somebody who lived within 10 miles of the plant and had a scientific background."   I cast him a suspicious glance.   Given that Don was appointed to be vice-chair of the advisory panel, I suspect that some of his other qualifications were considered as well.  For instance, Don is also a member of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Advisory Council, and of the National Marine Educators Association.   He is a busy man and the CAP did nothing to alleviate this.   It was his duty to advise Maine Yankee on its metamorphosis from a functional nuclear power plant to a high level nuclear waste site.

Nuclear power emits no air pollution and no carbon dioxide like a conventional fossil fuel power plant.  The drawbacks of nuclear power are of a different and infamous nature.   A nuclear power plant's fuel is usually a certain isotope of uranium, 235U, which means it has a total of 235 neutrons and protons in its nucleus.  Just like iron or copper, uranium is mined from the earth.   Most natural uranium is of the form 238U, which means it has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; Before it can be used as fuel, 238U is treated to lose three neutrons and become 235U. This fuel is formed into small pellets, placed into tubes, and placed vertically into the reactor where neutrons are launched at them like spitballs.   This neutron bombardment changes the element to 236U, the nucleus of which wobbles around due to its resulting instability and then splits into fission products much like a snowball that isn't wet enough to stay together.   Except in this sense, upon fission there is a tremendous release of energy.  We use this resulting energy to produce steam, run turbines, and produce electricity so that we may use lights, listen to the radio, pump water to our faucets, and make microwavable popcorn.  However, in splitting this atom we generate radioactive fission products, the two halves of our snowball.  This waste is, for the most part, useless to us.   Being highly radioactive, it is also incredibly damaging to living creatures.

Radioactivity comes from the emission of matter from the radioactive nuclei, a process known as decay.  An isotope will decay slowly over time, with many radioactive intermediate steps, to a stable state, such as lead, which is not radioactive.  However, the problem is that this decay occurs in slow steps, much like baking bread where there are significant waiting times for rising.   This waiting time is known as the half life.  It is the amount of time required for half of the radioactive substance to decay to its stable state.   Because of this physical law, a radioactive substance will decay relatively rapidly early in its life but will remain at a lower radioactive level for a long time.   The half life for 235U is 704 million years.   Over its twenty-four years of operation, Maine Yankee had generated 1,434 of these spent fuel tubes.   It was the CAP's duty to help Maine Yankee decide the fate of this high level nuclear waste in a manner which the public would find acceptable.

Back in his office, Don swung his legs over the side of his chair, took a large sip from his tepid coffee, and said, "They knew that there wasn't going to be a national repository in place by the time they were done closing down so they had to put the fuel somewhere."  Maine Yankee flew Don and the rest of the CAP out to various nuclear plants, such as Connecticut Yankee, to see how they handled their waste.   Eventually they opted for the dry storage method.  This method involves a 15 foot tall cylinder of 2 ½ inch thick carbon steel, surrounded by 2 ½ feet of concrete which is filled with the spent fuel tubes, welded shut, evacuated, and filled with inert helium gas.   "They're really robust," Don said casually with a shake of his fist.  "Robust" is an understatement.  The company who makes these waste casks, NAC International, has tested these casks under what they term, in a viciously-ironic multiple-entendre, MADness conditions.  MADness stands for Militant Acts of Destructiveness and could refer to anything from a shoulder-fired missile to a tank shell to an airplane colliding with these casks.  In a joint paper, Maine Yankee and NAC International exhibit a diagram of one of these casks in a showdown with an airplane fuselage.  They describe how the airplane would "flow" around the cask like it were parting water and how the resulting fire would not be hot enough to damage the steel cylinder.  Don agrees with these statements.  "Maybe if you were in Beirut you could argue that [these] need better protection."   Moreover, if one were to gain access to the casks, "the amount of radiation coming out of the top of that canister would be such that you would be replacing people every 5-10 minutes.   It's not going to be the place where people would go to make a dirty bomb."

A few years ago while Don was flying back from visiting a nuclear power plant with Maine Yankee's general legal counsel, she asked him what he thought the company should do with their excess land.  Don remarked, "Since the vast majority of the 800 acres is not developed, it would be a great thing if you could find a way to conserve, keep as open space on the coast of Maine, some part of it.   It would be a nice thing to give back to the town, the county, the region, and the state for having done business here for so long."   With the seed planted, Maine Yankee asked for applications from organizations who wished to acquire this land.   Moreover, in order to fulfill an obligation from a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission settlement agreement in 1999, Maine Yankee would supply $200,000 to the winner.   Chewonki applied and despite applications from several other worthy groups, it received the land and money on March 22, 2005.  The 200 acres Chewonki received is located on the east coast of Young point, the fork shaped peninsula between Chewonki and Bailey Point.   It has since become the Chewonki Eaton Farm Preserve.

Later that fall after talking with Don, I met Eric Howes, Maine Yankee's Director of Public and Governmental Affairs, in an unassuming café near my college.   Over the telephone, he had said it would be possible for me to visit him at his home in nearby Topsham, but I decided we had best meet on neutral ground.   One should not simply waltz into the den of a man with such a title.  I was expecting to meet a large and slick figure in a new suit but Eric showed up in a green minivan and a flannel shirt.  He works part time for Maine Yankee now and describes himself as a "glass half full guy."

Eric was somewhat of a soft-spoken man and I often struggled to hear him over the sound of clinking mugs and frothing cappuccino machines.   He constantly spoke about their actions being "the right thing to do" and repeatedly interspersed his dialogue with, "You know?"  Over the sound of a crying baby, Eric recited Maine Yankee's decommissioning mission statement.  "It's amazing I can still recite this.  It was: A safe, cost effective decommissioning that is responsive to our employees and the community."  He immediately repeated it to me, emphasizing the adjectives.   He described the creation of the CAP as "groundbreaking," a way to "receive feedback from a cross section of the community…We didn't want to be going against the tide every step of the way."   One particular instance of public disapproval involved the temporary cooling fans over the casks.  "There were a lot of things we had to learn…we put these fans in and turned them on and suddenly we were getting calls from people of Westport Island saying 'Good God, what is that?' You know?   It was just this constant hum 24/7…So, you know, going from a quiet little nuclear power plant that really didn't make much noise, just generated lots of electricity and employed a lot of people, you know, suddenly we were having an external impact on the community."

Using the dry cask method, Maine Yankee converted its 40 acre power plant into an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI).   The low level waste of slightly irradiated plant components were shipped to places such as Barnwell, SC for disposal and burial.   Over 53,000 cubic feet of asbestos were removed.  Many of the functional pieces of the plant were sold to other plants as spare parts.   Today, the installation houses 64 casks of high level nuclear waste next to a green field, all that remains of the former Maine Yankee.

Driving to Bailey Point in early November, I passed by the road to Chewonki.   If my longing glance had lingered down that road any longer I would have missed the first sign indicating my destination up ahead.  A large blue sign with white lettering states simply, "Maine Yankee," without any indication of distance or what on earth Maine Yankee could be.   Had I not know better, I would have thought I was headed to a quaint arts and craft store complete with fragrant candles and all of the wonders of the harvest season.  Was one expecting this, the first sign of their error would be a sign on the right side of the road stating, "Warning!   Keep Out!   Force will be used to keep unauthorized persons out."   It is balanced by another sign on the left side of the road courteously reminding me to "Buckle up! –Maine Yankee Wellness Committee."

About half a mile beyond the road to Chewonki, I passed underneath a series of towering high tension power lines as the forest disappeared on my right.   A large black steel gate suddenly halted my progress next to a yellow gatehouse with dark windows.   To gain access to the site, one needs to use an intercom system placed on the side of the unmanned gatehouse and present some identification to a security camera.   I nervously hoped my old Massachusetts driver's license picture still looked enough like me.  It was a dark, blustery, cloudy day with little rain and I had a meeting scheduled with Jim Connell, the manager of Maine Yankee's ISFSI.

I parked my car less than one hundred feet from the 64 casks containing the remnants of Maine Yankee.  Even from this distance I could tell I had underestimated their size.   Standing in eight rows like frozen soldiers, the casks sit atop a thick concrete pad and behind two rows of metal fencing replete with radioactivity signs and razor wire.   Having decayed significantly enough to no longer need the noisy active cooling system, the casks have square holes at their top and bottom, allowing natural airflow to passively cool the steel cask.  I could see several security cameras perched on the fencing and on the side of the nearby warehouse office building.  I was listening to the thick power lines buzzing over my head, apparently still live, when I noticed a rather short man in full camouflage, square cap, and with a silver pistol on his hip waiting several yards away.  "Hi!" I said enthusiastically.

"You here to see Jim Connell?" he asked gruffly, getting right to the point.

"Yes, one second."  My interview materials were somewhat scattered throughout my car so I carelessly thrust them into my pockets.  Realizing I probably looked like a wandering peddler, I stopped to reorganize myself while the guard gawked from the other side of my car.   It seems Maine Yankee wasn't used to having visitors.

My personal guard escorted me to Jim Connell who was watching some type of instructional video on his computer.  Following a quick handshake, we left his office and settled into a conference room where the walls were plastered with colorful graphs and charts of Bailey point.  A nearby bookcase was filled with plastic binders with titles like, "Nuclear Regulatory Commission."  Jim himself is a large man with graying hair and an electrical engineering degree He fit well into his surroundings; he was wearing three ID cards around his neck, one of them said CT Yankee (Access Level 4), and a black polo shirt that read "Decommissioning Team – Maine Yankee."   He is a man of few words.

Early in the interview I asked him to describe the level of security at the site.  "I can't talk at all about security here other than to say that there is a significant level of security here that's on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week."   With further prompting he elaborated by telling me nonchalantly that it was "safeguards information" and, "Divulging that information might be of some use to potential saboteurs."   After speaking with Don and Eric I was anxious to receive a tour of the site from Jim.

Walking out of the warehouse, I asked Jim how many people worked at the waste site.  Jim looked sidelong at me.  "Can't say… we can take this truck."  We got into Jim's large black ford pickup and I decided to persist as the engine roared to life.

"You don't know or you can't say?"

"Can't say," he repeated quickly while shifting the truck into reverse.   This was probably also safeguards information so I decided to question from a different angle.

"Can you tell me how many office people work here?"  

"Uhhhh…three," he said with initial hesitation followed by certainty.   I had seen more than three people inside the warehouse.  However, considering it a moot point I decided it was best not to pester the man who was gracious enough to give me a personal tour of his work site.   Jim began my tour by saying "You've been as close to the casks as you're going to get."

All that remains on Maine Yankee's 40 acre site is the warehouse, the casks, and the power lines of the transfer station.  Everything else has been moved away via barge, rail, and truck, leaving behind a green field marked periodically with flagged poles sticking up out of the grand.  Jim explained that the poles mark groundwater testing wells.  During the decommissioning, there had been some contamination of groundwater.  Ironically, the contamination was the result of a natural response to an unnatural situation.  When the construction workers laid marine sediments over estuarine sediments, water percolated through and resulted in the movement of heavy metals from bacteria through the soil.

One of the most conspicuous signs of Bailey point's history is a sandy basin spanning Bailey point and Foxbird Island, known as the forebay.   When the plant was in operation, the forebay was used to mix the heated water coming out of the plant with the salt water of the estuary, minimizing the deleterious impact the hot water would have on the marine life.  Over time, small amounts of radioactivity accumulated in the sediments of the forebay.  After vacuuming up many of the sediments, Maine Yankee filled in the forebay and has been attempting to transform it into a salt marsh to sequester any remaining radioactivity.   It now looks like an overgrown sandbox with a few weeds growing inside.

With the tour finished, I bid my terse tour guide farewell and walked up to the fencing around the concrete behemoths.  Without another person to talk to, I was initially startled by the silence at Maine Yankee but soon realized it wasn't silent at all.   My footsteps on the gravel were drowned by the wind and the nearby flapping American flag.   When I stopped walking, I could hear the power lines buzzing and fizzling overhead in the low clouds, rerouting electricity to various parts of southern Maine and providing the background noise to my ruminations.   Crows barked in the distance.   The tangy smell of salt water was just barely discernable on the breeze.

Around the waste and the fencing is a steep, ten foot tall dirt embankment.   It is another sign that the CAP had a meaningful impact upon the decommissioning of Maine Yankee.   While Don himself believed that the canisters didn't need any additional protection, some members of the panel disagreed.  The reverse-moat is the result of the panel's compromise with the company and it has had an unintended consequence for the community.  The grassy embankment traces a square around the waste site, blocking one's view of the 64 casks from all directions, including the road and the water.   The only place one can see the casks is from the air or my current position at the break in the embankment.   Consequently, few people know about the current activities on Bailey Point.  Were the embankment not there, hundred of boaters would be able to see the casks daily from the water.  Eric Howes alerted me to this fact during our interview and admitted that "We probably need to do a little bit more education of the community, at least of public officials."

The end result of the decommissioning is this simple fact:   64 casks of high level nuclear waste are sitting and decaying in Wiscasset, ME, a town which professes to be the "prettiest village in Maine."  These casks, while "robust," are certainly not indestructible.   Jim and Eric explained to me that they are licensed for twenty years and have an engineering life of 50 years, which does not actually relate to their expected lifespan.   Jim admitted that their life-span has been modeled mathematically and that "it's really open-ended."   Eric took a stronger stance, arguing that "for all practical purposes you could store the fuel indefinitely."   When I asked Jim what their plan would be if a cask did fail and leaked radioactivity into the surrounding environment, he responded with "I don't expect that a cask could fail in several hundred years."   Refusing to relent on this point I posited a hypothetical situation where a cask did fail.   "The plan would be to engage the manufacturer to repair it," he replied without hesitation.

At the end of my conversation with Don Hudson he walked over to his wall of books and began searching, explaining, "They are sort of grouped by topic… but" he chuckled, "I don't have a nuclear fuel section."   Finding what he was searching for he extracted a thin cream colored book with red lettering entitled, "One Hundred Centuries of Solitude: Redirecting America's High-Level Nuclear Waste Policy."   Looking me in the eye, we shook hands and he handed the book over to me saying, "Sooner or later they will leak…If they have a problem with a canister tomorrow my hunch is that it is an isolated problem.  45-50 years out when they start to have problems my guess is that it's going to be like an old car… they're all going to be breaking at once.  And so, then what are we going to do?"

In the CAP's report on the decommissioning of Maine Yankee, Don wrote, "We tend to have a very short-term memory when it comes to industrial and economic development in the United States and around the world…When we move on to new ways of doing things we tend to forget – almost immediately – about the past… History is poised to repeat itself along the shores of the Back Sheepscot River."

As I drive out to the steel gate at Maine Yankee, I am left with a sense of unease.  My conversation with Jim, the embankment, and the low clouds accentuate the sense of secrecy and silence I feel around Bailey point.  Maine Yankee and the very land it sits on seems to be brooding and waiting: waiting for the fuel to decay, waiting for the waste to be moved somewhere else, waiting to go out of business.  The gate closes behind me with a clang in the still air and I notice a flock of wild turkeys standing in the yellow field beside me, a few periodically pecking at the ground, their gray feathers rustling in the quickening wind.   They, too, appear to be waiting for something.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act as a first step in dealing with the generation of high-level nuclear waste in the United States.   It called for the creation of two national repositories by 1998, one in the east and one in the west that would safely sequester high level nuclear waste from commercial power and weapons manufacturing plants for 10,000 years.  This monumental task was assigned to the Department of Energy.   The federal nuclear waste repository would undergo a process known as reverse mining.   The site would be excavated, the waste canisters placed in sealed boreholes within the tunnel, and then the entire site would be backfilled to prevent retrieval of the waste.   Several stipulations described how the selection process should be carried out.  The funds for waste disposal would come from the public's energy bills.   The act also required that monetary compensation should be provided to the public living near the repositories and that all information concerning the choice of sites be made available to the public.  Moreover, the sites should be chosen based upon technical criteria only and the DOE should cooperate with the concerns of states and Native American reservations.   To ensure consent, the selected state would be given veto power over the choice of repository site but this was minimally effective because Congress could veto their veto.    Lastly, the EPA set the limits of radiation exposure.  They chose, seemingly arbitrarily, that no more than 1000 cancer deaths should result from the repository in its 10,000 years of operation.   The apparent progress which this act was supposed to make in clearing our country's "national constipation concerning nuclear waste," as Don calls it, has been ephemeral at best.

A 1987 amendment to the NWPA dropped a significant roadblock in the middle of the DOE's efforts.  In addition to cutting the number of repositories required to only one, it also halted all site characterizations except that of Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada.   Afterwards, Nevadans dubbed the amendment the "Screw Nevada Bill."  Yucca Mountain is in a very arid region of the American west and within the US' Nellis Air Force Range, the nuclear weapon testing site of WWII and Cold War infamy.

There are some very legitimate reasons why people oppose the selection of Yucca Mountain as the only national nuclear waste repository.   To start with, the mountain is 90 miles south of Las Vegas, a major tourist site with huge economic benefits for the state.  Moreover, it is nearly impossible to predict the activity of that area over the next 10,000 years. There are concerns about geologic events in the area such as earthquakes and volcanoes.  Yucca Mountain lies on the Ghost Dance Fault and in 1992 there was a 5.6 magnitude earthquake 12 miles from Yucca Mountain.  Moreover, two nearby volcanoes have erupted in the last 5000 years.   Another concern is the movement of groundwater in the region, what little there is.  Some people are concerned about the potential for urban development in the area.  The area is almost too arid for habitation but who knows what technological advances may be achieved in the next 100 centuries?  Another concern is whether future generations will find a use for the waste and attempt to retrieve it from the mountain.  Lastly, as Don Hudson told me "the anti-nuclear and anti-war community both understand that if we crack that nut, Yucca Mountain, we are going to make it easier for nuclear power" to develop in the United States.

The DOE made a promise in the National Waste Policy Act to begin collecting high level nuclear fuel across the country starting in 1998 with the opening of Yucca Mountain.  However, because of the problems with the mountain's characterization, the opening date for Yucca Mountain has been pushed back to 2003 and then 2010, and it is currently slated to open in 2017.  As Eric Howes said, "As soon as the waste is moved [Maine Yankee] will cease to exist… We are in the business of going out of business.   But we can't go out of business until the federal government fulfills its obligations.  The electric rate payers have done their part… those who benefited from nuclear power paid for the disposal of the fuel whether it be at Maine Yankee or any other nuclear power plant.  It's the federal government that has not held up its end of the bargain."

There are other options.  High level nuclear waste can be reprocessed and placed back into the nuclear fuel cycle.  Nuclear fuel tubes are retired from service because after a certain amount of time they build up fission products which slow down the fission process, making it less efficient and energetically unfavorable.  But over 97% of the 235U still remains in the tube, unused.   By reprocessing, the fission products can be removed and the uranium can be placed back into the nuclear fuel cycle.  This process significantly decreases the amount of high level nuclear waste that must be sequestered.   France, which currently gets over 70% of its electricity from nuclear fission, reprocesses all of its high level waste.  The problem, and the reason why the US does not reprocess currently, is that the process results in the extraction of plutonium, the radioactive material necessary for certain nuclear weapons.  George W. Bush has put forth an idea entitled the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership which calls for establishing reprocessing in the United States.   The hope is that by reprocessing and minimizing our waste, we can make the Yucca Mountain proposal more feasible.

Our choices in this country concerning spent nuclear fuel are not palatable.   We must choose between sequestering significant amounts of nuclear waste and sequestering smaller amounts with the generation of plutonium in the process.  However, given our insatiable thirst for cheap energy in this country, a solution needs to be found.  As Don Hudson said, "We are going to have to get serious about breaking the national constipation that we have with dealing with high level radioactive waste."   What is clear, however, is that it is far more preferable to have one location where we keep our high level nuclear waste rather than to have a hundred different locations with a hundred different policies.  As Eric Howes said, "For those of us who work with this issue, it's like pushing the rock up the hill and watching it roll back down… [Yucca Mountain] is one of the most arid, god-forsaken places you could ever visit… And then you come back and you sort of compare it to lush green Maine on the banks of the Sheepscot River, and it just doesn't make any sense… I think all you need to do is go to Yucca Mountain once and then you get it and say, 'Oh, I know why we chose this place.'"

On a sunny November day, I drove to Chewonki's Eaton Farm Preserve on Young Point.  The peninsula is half a mile from Chewonki, half a mile from Maine Yankee, eight miles from my family's summer house, and seventeen miles from my college.   Since being given the land, Chewonki has built several trails down the eastern shore of Young point and it is this trail which I was planning to explore.  It was a brisk morning and thus not surprising that the dirt parking lot was empty on my arrival.  At the start of the trail, a standing map shows Chewonki's proposed Back River Trail, far from reality at this point, which will run from the heart of Chewonki Neck, over and through Young point, past Bailey Point, and up to Wiscasset.   Maine Yankee's site, if it is still present when the trail is completed, will be near the center of the Back River Trail.

The half mile trail I was walking begins in a grassy field but soon passes into the forest, running parallel to the field for a while.   It is marked with little white discs painted with an osprey flying beneath the words, "Back River Trail."   Eventually, Montsweag Bay becomes visible through the trees, sparkling in the morning sun, as the trail heads to the eastern point.   The forest around me was mostly of white and red pine but the tip of the point contains a copse of beech trees, which keep their dry, brown, dead leaves throughout the winter.   The leaves were rattling in the wind on this cold day, as though they were attempting to stay warm by rubbing against each other.  They sounded like a bottle of seltzer water being poured into a glass.   It is a peaceful place with the sound of the lapping waves, the rustling canopy, and the sun peeking through the branches.

As I walked back up the eastern shore of the point, back to the field and my car, I stopped to pick up some trash discarded by previous visitors: an orange water bottle, a plastic grocery bag, a bottle cap.   Standing up from my latest retrieval, I noticed the rows of naked black walnut saplings that a Chewonki trustee recently planted in the field.  I walked through these valuable hardwood saplings and wondered if I would ever see them grown to full height, ready to sacrifice themselves to further Chewonki's mission.   Turning away from the young saplings, I could see Maine Yankee's square warehouse to the east peeking over the trees on Bailey Point.  The sixty-four casks were not visible from my vantage point, but I knew they were there.   Standing between these two legacies, I thought about our future.

References

Angelo,W.J.  (2000).  Maine Yankee Finally Faces the Wrecking Ball.  Demolition 245(8): 58.

Black Diamond Consultants, Inc.   (2005).  "The Maine Yankee Decommissioning Advisory Panel: a Model for Public Participation in Nuclear Projects."   Available via http://www.maineyankee.com/ .

Bodansky, D.  (2006).  "Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel."  Physics Today 59(12): 80-81.

Energy Information Administration [Internet].   Available from: http://www.eia.doe.gov/fuelnuclear.html .   Accessed on 12/5/07.

Flynn, J., Chalmers, J., Easterling, D., Kasperson, R., Kunreuther, H., Mertz, C.K., Mushkatel, A., Pijawka, K.D., Slovic, P., with Dotto, L.  One Hundred Centuries of Solitude: redirecting America's high-level nuclear waste policy.   Boulder, CO: Westview Press Inc; 1995.

Maine Yankee [Internet].   Wiscasset (ME).  Available from: http://www.maineyankee.com/ . Accessed on 11/27/2007.

New Horizon Scientific, LLC.   "Maine Yankee Decommissioning Experience Report: Detailed Experiences 1997-2004."  Available via http://www.maineyankee.com/ .

Norton, W. and McGough, M.S.   (2002).  Maine Yankee: Making the Transition from an Operating Plant to an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI).   WM '02 Conference.   Tucson, AZ.

- I would like to thank Professor Anthony Walton and my classmates in English 213 for their support in this project.

- I am indebted to Donald Hudson, Eric Howes, and Jim Connell for their time and assistance.