The following article about the national problem of spent nuclear fuel focuses on South Carolina's unique situation as a producer and storage location for spent fuel. Tom Clements, ANA's Nonproliferation Policy Director is quoted extensively discussing the possibility that South Carolina might become a national nuclear waste dump.
June 3, 2012
By Eric Connor
From the Greenville News (SC)
Up the hill from the Oconee Nuclear Station’s imposing triple-reactor domes, in the shadow of the ornamental water tower encircled by symbolic atomic rings, a nondescript complex of graying concrete entombs lethal doses of nuclear waste whose radioactivity will outlive thousands of human generations.
The stockpile is so irradiated that hundreds of spent fuel rod assemblies housed inside must for nearly a decade rest deep beneath water pools near the reactors, where smoldering rods — deadly to the touch — are packed closer together than designers ever intended.
This is radioactive purgatory.
After nearly four decades of broken promises by the government and billions of dollars spent by everyday energy ratepayers to dispose of the waste in a deserted Nevada mountain, no final resting place for the unnatural refuse of energy consumption exists anywhere in the United States.
“We should have dealt with nuclear waste the first day we started putting one brick together with another to build a nuclear plant, and that was not done,” former South Carolina Gov. Dick Riley — once presidentially appointed to try to solve the nation’s nuclear waste problem — told GreenvilleOnline.com.
“It’s a lack of political will, that’s all it is,” Riley said. “Nobody wants it. It’s not anything imminent in terms of a major crisis. However, it needs to be resolved, or it is going to be a crisis.”
The definition of “crisis” is a matter of perspective when it comes to the dilemma of nuclear power — efficiency weighed against catastrophe.
Nuclear watchdogs say cataclysm — such as last year’s earthquake-spawned meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan — stands on the precipice in unforeseeable ways, particularly when spent fuel is stockpiled in pools never intended for such.
“The pools have much more radiation in them than the reactors themselves,” said Tom Clements, Nonproliferation Policy Director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability watchdog group. “That would be a catastrophe of a magnitude greater than a reactor accident.”
Duke Energy, which has operated the Oconee station since the plant’s commission in 1973, says it has exceeded guidelines for spent-fuel pools that federal regulators revisited in the wake of Fukushima. The company says concrete-and-steel-reinforced “dry casks” outside are tested against speeding locomotives and conflagrations of burning jet fuel.
Meanwhile, an ominous warning has been issued by a collection of experts convened by President Barack Obama to diagnose the problem following the abandonment of the costly and long-proposed Yucca Mountain permanent disposal facility.
“The need for a new strategy is urgent,” they said recently in a highly anticipated, 158-page report, “not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating.”
The knobs and lights and indicators along the walls of Oconee’s control room look like something from a “Star Wars” battleship — though more Jimmy Carter-era “Star Wars” than George W. Bush.
“Realistically, the plant was designed and built in the ’70s using ’60s technology,” said Andy Sabisch, an on-site Nuclear Regulatory Commission senior resident inspector. “They didn’t want to use cutting-edge stuff that wasn’t proven. They used stuff they knew would work and had proven itself.”
The plant, on the shores of Lake Keowee about a 40-mile drive from Greenville, has its limitations, Sabisch said, governed by the age of some of its obsolete components. The plant is upgraded where it can be and needs it most, he said.
Underneath the hood is some of the most-advanced nuclear technology in the country. Last year, Oconee — with a capacity Duke Energy says can power 1.9 million homes — was the first nuclear plant to go all-digital in its steam generator inspection system.
Regulators extended its license to operate by 20 years beginning next year, though Sabisch said proposals to extend the license another 20 years beyond that is “tough to justify.”
Oconee, with its three reactors, was a powerhouse during the prime of nuclear plant construction that ended with the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island in 1979, followed by the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
At the time, the government had promised energy companies a permanent home for the commercial waste created (today totaling more than 67,000 metric tons).
The prospect wasn’t that far-fetched. Nuclear proponents frequently point to the visual of the country’s entire stockpile of spent fuel assemblies over the past four decades covering the length of a football field, seven yards deep.
However, soon the disposal of spent fuel proved to be a politically toxic issue. For decades, South Carolina — the Savannah River Site in particular — was known as the nation’s dumping ground.
At one point, Riley said, he as governor dispatched the National Guard and state Highway Patrol to guard the state line after authorities in Pennsylvania called to inform the state that waste from the Three Mile accident was on its way to South Carolina.
“It’s a controversial thing,” Riley said. “Nobody wants it. South Carolina was the answer to a lot of it.”
‘Risk level high as possible’
Instead, spent nuclear fuel assemblies are building up at the nation’s 104 active reactors, about 2,000 metric tons per year.
The assemblies are “re-racked” to maximize space.
At Oconee, the assemblies rest for seven to 10 years beneath 40-feet of water designed to cool the rods and shield workers from radiation.
Oconee is required to keep at least 177 open slots for assemblies in case they have to be moved from each reactor for maintenance work or emergencies, Sabisch said.
In the concrete facility up the hill, 123 casks each hold 24 fuel rod assemblies. One row of the storage pad is filled, a second partially and a third row open, he said.
“We have plenty of space on our property to accommodate the fuel that we are using,” Duke spokeswoman Sandra Magee said. “We’ve been doing this safely for over 10 years.”
The casks — reinforced with steel and concrete — are dropped from planes, slammed with locomotives and burned for hours in jet fuel as a gauge against potential terrorist attack.
However, at Fukushima, spent fuel pools were of chief concern as debris fell into one after the magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami it generated. A 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia a few months later heightened worries.
There is no risk of tsunami, but nuclear critics point out that Oconee stands downstream from the 385-foot Lake Jocassee dam.
David Lauchbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists watchdog group, told a U.S. Senate energy subcommittee following Fukushima that overusing pools creates too much risk.
“The U.S. spent fuel storage strategy is to nearly fill the spent fuel pools to capacity and then to transfer fuel into dry cask storage to provide space for the new fuel discharged from the reactor core,” Lauchbaum said. “This keeps the spent fuel pools nearly filled with irradiated fuel, thus maintaining the risk level about as high as possible.”
However, Oconee vice president Preston Gillespie said that fuel pools are made of reinforced concrete several feet thick with stainless steel liners designed to withstand earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.
The buildings surrounding the pools meet the same seismic standards, he said.
Each year, ratepayers across the country whose power companies rely on nuclear technology pay about $750 million into the Nuclear Waste Fund that Congress created in 1982 for the purpose of disposing nuclear waste without burdening taxpayers.
Today, $27 billion sits unspent, “effectively inaccessible to the waste program” as a result of executive and legislative actions that dip into the money and force the program to compete for federal funding, according to a report issued earlier this year by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.
The commission was formed following the Obama administration’s action to cut off funding for Yucca Mountain with about $12 billion spent to study and develop the project to bury commercial waste 1,000 feet deep into the ground.
“The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments,” the commission wrote. “The point here is that the federal government is contractually bound to use these funds to manage spent fuel. The bill will come due at some point.”
The commission said that the cost to dispose of 122,000 metric tons of commercial waste in Yucca Mountain and close the facility would reach $96 billion.
As part of the 1982 deal, the government contractually obligated itself to begin storing commercial high-level waste beginning in 1998.
Commercial utilities sued the government after it failed to honor the deadline. In the past 12 years, American taxpayers have paid billions of dollars in damages awarded by judges.
The prospect of a disposal facility at Yucca is all but dead as its critics contend that the future holds promise.
“In a way, it’s good that there’s a dilemma about what to do with the material,” Clements said, “because it gives more time for science to possibly come up with better options. People say, ‘Oh, politics killed Yucca Mountain.’ Well, politics created Yucca Mountain as a disposal site.”
In the meantime, Magee said that the government must come up with a plan for what to do with waste over the course of the century.
“We believe the government should fulfill their obligation,” she said, “and we hope that this issue — which has become more of a political issue than a scientific issue — will be resolved, and the government will do the right thing and come up with an interim solution since they’ve not met the fulfillment of a permanent repository.”
In its report, the Blue Ribbon commission deliberately refrained from drawing conclusions about Yucca Mountain’s suitability.
Instead, the commission pressed the need for access to the nuclear waste fund and the construction of consolidated interim storage facilities.
The interim facilities, the commission said, would save on costs for monitoring and security, particularly for “orphan” spent fuel left at the site of decommissioned reactors.
In South Carolina, the NRC recently approved the construction of two new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer plant 25 miles north of Columbia.
But given the political history of waste disposal, where would it go?
The commission suggests that states and their stakeholders must buy in to the location of storage facilities.
In South Carolina, the Savannah River Site — long a handler of Cold War-era nuclear defense waste — is on the radar.
The site continues development of its plutonium fuel facility but must transition from thousands of jobs that vanished after a stimulus-funded clean-up project was completed.
Last year, a federal Government Accountability Office report quoted one expert who cited SRS as a place suitable for possible reprocessing of spent fuel.
Proponents tout reprocessing as a form of recycling, though environmentalists say the process creates too much waste and is as much a non-starter as shooting spent fuel into space.
“We in South Carolina are concerned (there are) contractors at Savannah River Site that want to make us basically into a spent-fuel dump,” Clements said. “The public, I believe, is going to fight back strongly against that. This is all secretive stuff they don’t want to talk about, because they know it’s going to be controversial.”
While talk of SRS and spent nuclear fuel storage has persisted, the facility hasn’t entertained any “concrete” proposals, SRS spokesman Bill Taylor said.
“There’s probably some studies on it, there’s probably considerations, but at this point we’ve not been given that mission,” Taylor said. “This site as well as other (Department of Energy) sites are considered for that kind of a mission, but right now everything is in the conceptual stage.”