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Japan crisis refuels nuclear waste storage debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 28, 2011 - WASHINGTON - When the Zion Nuclear Power Station began operating on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1973, disposing of its used fuel rods seemed a simple matter of cooling them for a few years in the plant's spent-fuel pool until the waste could be shipped elsewhere for reprocessing or safe storage. But a quarter century passed with no progress on nuclear waste disposal.

And when the aging Zion plant's two reactors were retired in 1998, about 1,100 tons of that used fuel had accumulated in the pool. The still-radioactive waste remains there today, 40 miles north of Chicago, even though Zion has been padlocked for 13 years.

Across the nation, similar pools at the 104 operating nuclear reactors -- including Missouri's Callaway plant -- and other closed plants across the country are storing more than 60,000 metric tons of used but still radioactive fuel. Despite new methods to cram more spent fuel into them, many of the storage pools have reached or are nearing capacity

In the wake of the tsunami-caused nuclear crisis in Japan -- which has featured a two-week struggle to try to cool the exposed spent-fuel pool at a Fukushima Daiichi reactor -- some fear that the radioactive waste being held at this country's nuclear plants is more vulnerable to natural disaster or terrorist attack than the hardened reactor cores.

"These fuel pools are potentially subject to accidents, sabotage, terror attacks, targeting in time of war or what you now have in Japan -- which is a loss of power and overheating accident," said Mark Haim, chairman of Missourians for Safe Energy, a nonprofit group that backs alternate energy sources.

Lawmakers of both political parties are also worried. Calling the Zion storage near Lake Michigan "unacceptable," U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said at a forum in Chicago on Friday that "it appears that spent nuclear fuel poses just as serious a threat as a core meltdown." Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also expressed concerns about spent-fuel pools located near bodies of water, including the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, that provide drinking water and are prone to flooding.

Officials from the nuclear industry assert that its spent-fuel storage pools are all safe and protected from both natural disasters and terrorist attacks. But many of its leaders agree that longer-term solutions need to be found.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an interest group that represents the nation's nuclear industry, reports that "the original design and construction of nuclear plants provided for used fuel storage for a decade or two, not for long-term storage." Because the Energy Department has not moved used fuel from the power plants, as a federal law requires, "some nuclear plants have run out of capacity in their water-filled vaults."

In Search of a Solution

Last week, John W. Rowe, the chief executive of Exelon Corp. -- which owns and operates the nation's largest fleet of 17 nuclear power plants, including all 11 reactors at six generating stations in Illinois -- said he expected the issue of maintaining spent fuel in pools beyond five years to be one of the areas the government is likely to review in light of the recent events in Japan.

"The United States must deal with the issue of spent fuel," said Craig Nesbit, vice president for communications of Exelon Generation, in an email to the Beacon. "Resolution of the issue cannot continue to be deferred indefinitely."

All sides in the nuclear debate -- the industry, environmental groups, Congress and federal regulatory agencies -- agree that something needs to be done about longer-term nuclear waste. But they don't agree on the solution.

After his administration opted not to push for the long-debated long-term storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., President Barack Obama last year ordered the Energy Department to establish a commission -- the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future -- to examine nuclear waste options.

Exelon's Rowe is one of its members, and the panel's co-chairs are two "grey eminence" figures: former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana who heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and Brent Scowcroft, a former National Security Adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford and currently president of a business consultancy, The Scowcroft Group.

The commission, which has been holding hearings, expects to produce a draft report by midsummer and its final recommendations by January of next year. But issuing that report, many experts say, may represent just the beginning of another round of debate over the future of the nation's nuclear waste. For the foreseeable future, they say, the nuclear waster will continue to be stored at the nation's nuclear power plants.

Spent-fuel Storage in Illinois and Missouri

As the state with the most commercial reactors, it's not surprising that Illinois also has the most spent fuel in its reactors' pools  at seven sites, including Zion. The used fuel rods are stored under at least 20 feet of water, which cools the rods and shields plant workers from their radiation.

The total amount of such stored irradiated fuel is about 7,800 tons, according to an Exelon spokesman, but that figure includes hundreds of tons that so far have been moved to "dry cask" storage. In terms of fuel assemblies, that translates into a total of 33,581 assemblies at seven storage sites – 28,425 assemblies in pools and 5,156 in dry casks.

Exelon Generation's chief operating officer, Charles Pardee, told the Chicago forum Friday that those storage pools and casks are safe. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also "has full confidence that the current fleet of reactors and spent fuel pools are operating in a manner that protects public health and safety," said Cynthia Pederson, the NRC's deputy administrator for the region that includes Illinois.

Even so, there are concerns about the buildup of waste. According to Exelon, the pools at four of the state's reactors have reached their listed capacity -- Dresden 2 (reached capacity in 2001), Dresden 3 (2003) and Quad Cities 1 and 2 (2004) -- and the other seven are scheduled to reach capacity over the next few years: Byron 1 and 2 (2011); Braidwood 1 and 2 (2012); LaSalle 1 and 2 (2012); and Clinton (2014).

In an email to the Beacon, Nesbit said "the pools never actually 'run out of space.' But they do reach a point where the oldest fuel must be transferred to dry casks in order to maintain enough free space to offload the reactor fuel if needed."

Among the lawmakers concerned about the long-term questions of the Illinois storage pools is U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who admonished Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at a recent House hearing: "There are 11 [spent-fuel] pools within 40 miles of downtown Chicago. Wouldn't it make sense to have one central location in the nation to store high-level nuclear waste?"

While Illinois leads the nation in commercial spent-fuel storage -- followed by Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New York -- Missouri ranks 7th from the bottom on the list of 35 states that store commercial spent fuel.

According to last year's state-by-state figures on the public website of the Nuclear Energy Institute, there are about 610 metric tons (672 U.S. tons) of used fuel in the Callaway nuclear plant's spent-fuel pool. But an Ameren Missouri spokesman, Mike Cleary, refused to confirm that figure, telling the Beacon in an email that "the amount of spent fuel currently stored in the Callaway spent fuel pool is considered sensitive information from a security standpoint."

Ameren's most recent SEC report said Callaway has enough installed storage capacity for spent nuclear fuel to last until 2020; an NEI chart lists the capacity as 2019. Ameren says its spent fuel is well protected from potential threats ranging from earthquakes to terrorist attacks.

Last week, Ameren's chief nuclear officer, Adam Heflin, said that the Callaway plant has six power sources, on- and off-site, to avoid a power loss. Even if all the redundant power sources would fail, Heflin said, workers would still be able to operate the pumps to keep radioactive materials cool.

Even so, Haim of Missouri Safe Energy said he is concerned. "From a safety and security standpoint, keeping so much [used] fuel on site in these pools is a poor idea," he told the Beacon. "We favor, as an interim handling strategy, to go to the beefed-up hardened casks on site. We are definitely opposed to reprocessing."

How Long Can You Repack?

Every year to 18 months, between a quarter and a third of a typical reactor's fuel load is removed and transported along canals to the fuel pool. NRC regulations permit companies to "re-pack" the grid of used fuel rods to allow more of them to remain in the pools. Typically, waste must sit in pools at least five years before being moved to a cask or permanent storage, but much material in the pools has been there far longer.

Spent nuclear fuel is about 95 percent uranium. Another 1 percent includes other "heavy elements," including curium, americium and plutonium-239, with very long half-lifes, retaining their radioactivity for thousands of years. The rest of the used fuel consists of fission byproducts with shorter half-lifes, such as strontium-90 and cesium-137.

While nuclear safety groups have been urging the NRC to require power companies to reduce the amount of spent fuel in their pools because of the possibility of quick overheating if a cooling system loses power, the industry says advances in the technology has made fuel pools safer. However, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told a House panel last week that, in the wake of the Japan crisis, the NRC will review spent fuel storage.

At Friday's nuclear safety forum in Chicago, Durbin and Kirk agreed that Congress should take action soon to try to solve the nuclear waste problem. Saying he fears that "spent nuclear fuel poses just as serious a threat as a core meltdown," Kirk zeroed in on the Zion-stored nuclear waste, which he said was "unacceptable" given the plant's proximity to Lake Michigan, a major source of drinking water. While Zion's spent fuel is still in containment pools, an Exelon spokesman told the Beacon that the company plans to transfer it to "dry cask" storage in 2014.

Kirk's long-term solution to move the radioactive waste away from populated areas would be to revive the old plan to develop the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as a national nuclear-waste repository. But Obama's administration has eliminated the budget for Yucca, and the project's leading opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last fall that the Yucca plan is dead.

Durbin, the assistant majority leader to Reid, said he had "supported Yucca in the past," but said it was now stuck in a stalemate. He thinks other nuclear waste options should be considered, including reprocessing spent fuel or packaging some of the spent fuel rods from their pools and encasing them in dry casks that are stored "in a safe place so that they can be held until we decide what to do with them next."

The problem is that every long-term solution to the nuclear waste problem considered so far has been fraught with controversy -- encountering political, logistical, environmental or security concerns.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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