Worst Case Scenario Feared For Toxic Radioactive Waste Stored On Great Lakes Shores

The Zion Nuclear Power Station sits along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

More than 60,000 tons of spent radioactive nuclear fuel sit on the shores of four of the five Great Lakes, the Detroit Free Press has reported.

Part of the spent nuclear fuel was from 15 U.S. nuclear power plants, which include four in Michigan. More than 50,000 tonnes of the volume stored along the Great Lakes, however, is from nuclear facilities in Canada.

The radioactive waste remains on the shorelines because there is nowhere else to place it. The report cited that the U.S. government broke its promise to provide the nuclear power industry with an underground repository for the waste by 1998. meanwhile, Canada is still on the process of trying to find a place to dump the waste.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear power industry point to safe on-site storage of spent nuclear fuel, but there is still fear for a remote possibility of a worst-case scenario release that may occur as a result of an accident, act of terrorism, or a natural disaster, which could have devastating consequences for the Great Lakes region.

Studies have shown that radioactive cloud from a spent fuel pool fire could damage an area spanning hundreds of miles and may lead to the evacuation of millions of people. Such an event could release multiple times the radiation that leaked from the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

Tons of radioactive spent fuel is reportedly stored in a containment pool at the Zion Nuclear Power Station.
  Scott Olson / Getty Images

“The fact that it’s on the shorelines of the Great Lakes takes that high consequence that would be anywhere and paints it red and puts exclamation marks around it,” said environmental lawyer Jim Olson, who founded the nonprofit For Love of Water, or FLOW.

Spent nuclear fuels are so dangerous, that their radioactivity would still be 20 times the amount that could kill a person exposed to it a decade after its removal from the nuclear reactor. Some of the radioactive byproducts of nuclear power generation also continue to be a health or environmental hazard for up to tens of thousands of years.

Seemingly harmless radioactive isotopes that can be blocked by the skin or clothing can also become toxic even in small amounts when eaten, consumed, or inhaled, which makes a potential contamination of the Great Lakes, which supply drinking water to 40 million people, the connected Mississippi River, and the agricultural areas of the country particularly dangerous.

The International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that the world’s generation of nuclear power will drop from 10 percent to just 5.6 percent by 2050.

Gordon Edwards, president of the nonprofit Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, however, said that while the age of nuclear power is winding down, the age of nuclear waste has just begun.