Nuclear Waste Outpaces Solutions
Along the headwaters of the Illinois River, engineers at the Dresden nuclear power station have erected two dozen steel and concrete silos that rise 20 feet above the Midwest plain.
The gray structures are unremarkable except for what is loaded inside: Each contains roughly 13 tons of high-level nuclear waste that has been accumulating at the plant since the Eisenhower administration. With nowhere to go, the waste will most likely remain in place for decades.
Dresden’s reactors have produced one of the largest stockpiles -- 1,347 tons -- of civilian nuclear waste in the nation. With the plant churning out nearly 48 tons more waste each year, engineers are preparing to double the size of the outdoor storage pad this summer.
The plant has the same problem as nearly all of the nation’s 103 commercial reactors: They were never designed to store waste long-term and are now forced to deal with large quantities of spent uranium fuel rods that produce high levels of radiation.
The problem reflects decades of miscalculations and missteps by the federal government, which promised at the dawn of the nuclear age to accept ownership of the waste. The plan to build a waste repository at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert has faced so many political, legal and technical problems that it’s impossible to project when -- or even if -- it will be built.
As a result, the most lethal waste product of industrial society is being handled outside any federal policy and without any roadmap for how it will be managed in the future, according to industry officials, nuclear waste experts, lawyers and academicians.
“It is a statement of reality,” acknowledges Clay Sell, deputy secretary of Energy. “Is it the right policy? No.”
The deep storage pools traditionally used to safely keep nuclear waste are filling up at most plants. Utilities have turned to outdoor storage in so-called dry casks as the de facto standard for dealing with waste.
From California to South Carolina, utilities have loaded 700 of the steel and concrete casks, and scores of additional casks are scheduled to be filled this year.
It is a stopgap measure that has averted a shutdown of the nuclear power industry. But it means leaving all of the roughly 50,000 tons of civilian nuclear waste spread across the nation for the next half-century or more. And storing the waste at power plant sites is creating significant economic, environmental, legal and security challenges -- including the potential for it to become a terrorist target.
A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that the waste stored in pools was most vulnerable, but the outdoor casks also were potential targets. Such an attack could trigger an environmental catastrophe.
“These are the ultimate dirty bombs,” said Bob Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former Energy Department official. “Let’s not pretend the way we are storing this waste is safe and secure in an age of terrorism.”
Utility executives and government officials sharply dispute such allegations, saying the plants have multiple layers of protection from any attack. Exelon Corp., the nation’s largest nuclear utility, has erected heavy barriers and security towers at Dresden that are staffed around the clock by guards with automatic weapons.
Though the nuclear industry has a good record for preventing radiation leaks during normal operations and dry casks are widely regarded as safe, many outside experts say their biggest fear is that future generations may lack the willpower and financial capability to safeguard tons of radioactive waste dispersed across the nation. Waste is already stored in casks at five shuttered nuclear plant sites.
“We are muddling into an alternative plan by default,” says Joe Egan, a longtime attorney for the nuclear industry who now represents Nevada in fighting Yucca Mountain.
Nuclear waste has also created a legal mess. The Energy Department is facing more than four dozen lawsuits by the utility industry for its failure to take the waste. Damages could reach $56 billion over the next three decades, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a powerful trade group for nuclear utilities.
At the Department of Energy, Sell argues that deep geologic storage of the waste at Yucca Mountain would be the best technical solution. He believes the project will eventually be completed. But the loss of a key court case last year and political resistance in Congress have put the dump at least 14 years behind schedule.
Without a dump, utilities have few options short of shutting down their reactors and eliminating 20% of the U.S. electricity supply that comes from nuclear power. And without a solution to waste, the proposal by President Bush to start a new era of nuclear plant construction could go nowhere.
Indefinite storage of nuclear waste at current reactor sites is a bitter pill for many politicians, particularly those from environmentally fragile areas such as Lake Michigan, which is ringed by nuclear plants.
“I want the waste off the shores of Lake Michigan,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), whose district includes two nuclear plants built on the lake’s eastern boundary. “Ultimately, there is a safety problem.”
Nuclear waste at power plants will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. The fission of uranium inside reactors produces heat for electricity production. Afterward, the uranium fuel rods are far more radioactive than when they entered the reactor.
To maximize storage capacity for the spent fuel rods, the nuclear industry devised a way to pack them more closely in the 50-foot-deep storage pools than initially planned. Critics say this kind of dense packing poses a safety risk, however. If terrorists were to puncture the pool wall and drain the water, the rods could ignite and disperse lethal amounts of radiation, according to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences.
Even with dense packing, the pools are running out of space. Twenty years ago, nuclear plants began removing the oldest fuel rods, which have radioactively decayed somewhat, and started storing them in massive outdoor storage casks like the ones at Dresden.
Officials at Nuclear Regulatory Commission “anticipate that there will be an increase in the number of casks being loaded over the next few years,” said E. William Brach, director of the commission’s spent fuel project office.
The logistics of nuclear waste ensure it will be around a long time. Even if the federal government gets a license to operate Yucca Mountain, the earliest it could accept waste shipments would be 2012. By that year, more than 60,000 tons of civilian nuclear waste would be spread across about three dozen states.
It would take about 50 years to work down the backlog, according to Frank von Hippel, a nuclear expert at Princeton University and former White House national security advisor. That’s because under current plans Yucca could process a maximum of 3,000 tons of waste annually, while nuclear power plants would be generating 2,000 new tons of waste each year. That means a net reduction of just 1,000 tons each year, he said.
“We have to assume that these casks will be around for a very long time,” Von Hippel said. “It will take quite a while to move them, even if we had someplace to send them today.”
In any case, “on the day Yucca Mountain opens” it would be too small to handle all the waste, acknowledges Sell, the Energy Department official. There is no Plan B. Under federal law, the department can pursue only Yucca Mountain.
Further complicating matters are the divided lines of authority between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department. The commission regulates waste at plant sites and authorizes dry cask storage but has no role in national policy for disposing of nuclear waste. That policy responsibility rests with the Energy Department, which has no voice or authority in the use of dry casks.
In the vacuum, a private consortium is planning to build an above-ground storage site for hundreds of casks on an Indian reservation in Utah. Despite state opposition, it is getting approval from the nuclear commission.
Meanwhile, utilities see dry cask storage as a cheap and safe, if not permanent, solution.
Holtec International, one of the leading suppliers, says its casks can safely store waste for at least 100 years without leaking, according to company marketing manager Joy Russell.
The regulatory commission typically licenses the casks for 20 years but last year renewed Dominion Electric’s license for 40 years, another signal that the waste would remain in place for a long time.
Holtec’s casks are constructed of two concentric rings of 1-inch-thick steel, separated by 27 inches of concrete that is poured at the power plant site. The casks sit on 2-foot-thick concrete pads, requiring no electricity, water or instrumentation. Inside, the spent fuel continues to radioactively decay, generating heat that is vented out the sides.
The only maintenance involves periodic painting and keeping up the radioactive warning labels on the steel shells.
On the inside of the casks, the waste is so radioactive it would deliver a fatal dose in minutes, but the outside can be touched.
“An individual can stand right next to the cask,” Brach said. “There is a dose, but it is a minimal dose.”
There have been some relatively minor accidents around the nation involving the casks, including one case in which a welding spark ignited hydrogen gas inside a cask. The ignition dislodged the cask’s lid but did not cause other damage.
Antinuclear groups, such as the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service and the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, say the casks should be better protected. In Germany, for example, the casks are inside hardened buildings.
Government tests at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland showed that a shoulder-fired missile could penetrate a cask wall, causing some radioactive fuel to disperse.
“We don’t want this 10-pin bowling alley out in the open,” said Dave Kraft, an antinuclear activist for more than 20 years. “Anybody with a shoulder-fired missile could hit one of these things from outside the plant.”
Though utilities defend the safety of the casks, they also are demanding that the federal government take the waste.
Exelon, formerly Commonwealth Edison, filed one of the 56 suits against the Energy Department when the agency failed to meet its legal commitment to open Yucca Mountain by 1998. It is the only company to settle so far, accepting $600 million for its costs over the next 10 years, according to Adam H. Levin, Exelon director of spent fuel.
“We expect at some time that the Energy Department will perform,” he said.
Across the river from the Dresden plant in the Village of Channahon, a residential building boom is occurring, attracting people who make the hour-and-a-half commute to jobs in Chicago.
“You can see the nuclear waste right across the river,” said Joe Petrovic, who lives in a subdivision near the plant and builds homes in the area for a living. “The plant hasn’t scared anyone from buying a home there.”
The plant is in Grundy County, which has three nuclear power plants as well as a large independent waste storage pool operated by General Electric Co. It probably has more nuclear waste than any county in the nation, though such statistics are not kept by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“I don’t see the casks as a problem,” said Grundy County Administrator Alfred Bourdelais. “Maybe in 200 or 300 years, but today there isn’t any more risk from those casks than there is from the plant, and it has a really low risk.”
Such local acceptance of cask storage worries experts who say that in the future the casks will become a poor permanent solution.
Kevin Crowley, a nuclear expert at the National Academy of Sciences who helped guide an investigation into the vulnerability of spent fuel storage, said the casks would become a risky legacy if left in place too long.
“The major uncertainty,” he said, “is in the confidence that future societies will continue to monitor and maintain such facilities.”