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Hamsa Ramesha/Medill

Dry cask storage is another on-site method of storing spent rods that has become more common. 

Permanent storage remains unsolved in new push for nuclear energy

by Fui Tsikata
Nov 18, 2008


 Hamsa Ramesha/Medill

Companies such as Exelon Corp. use pool storage to store spent nuclear rods on site.

Applications for new nuclear reactors keep rolling into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but everyone seems to be ignoring the crucial question: where will used nuclear rods be stored permanently?

As nuclear companies continue to store nuclear waste on-site, environmentalists warn that without a permanent storage location, building more nuclear plants could be dangerous to the country’s security.

The popularity of nuclear energy has undergone a resurgence of sorts as political and business leaders insist on a more energy-independent U.S. There are 16 new applications for a potential of 25 new nuclear reactors awaiting approval by the NRC. Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the nation’s largest nuclear energy producer, has a pending application for two new units in Texas, which would bring its total of nuclear reactors to 19.

While nuclear energy is potent, it faces many questions, the most important being safety and storage of nuclear waste. 

Nuclear energy advocates and foes alike are now jockeying to have a say in President-elect Obama’s energy plan. Obama said he was for nuclear energy but would like to see the long-term storage issue addressed.

Yucca mountain, 80 miles from Las Vegas, Nev., was identified years ago as a potential storage area for spent nuclear rods and other nuclear waste. Now, a decade after the repository was to open, it has been weighed down by controversy. Fear of volcanic activity in Yucca, lawsuits and other challenges considerably slowed down its development. Presently, the NRC has a three- to four-year time frame to complete geological analysis and assess the feasibility of Yucca mountain.

Everyone but some environmentalists agree that there is a need to find a site that will hold nuclear waste permanently, but finding that site has proven challenging.

“We support the idea of burying waste underground,” Union of Concerned Scientists spokesman Elliot Negin said. “We are just not convinced Yucca is the place for it.”

There are no functioning permanent storage facilities anywhere in the world, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Finland has identified a site, which has public support but is still a few years away from being operational, according to Negin.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any permanent storage, companies like Exelon store spent fuel rods on-site in large pools of water and in large containers known as dry casks. The U.S. Navy, whose nuclear ships generate spent rods, stores them in pools of water as well.

Scott Burnell, a spokesperson of the NRC, said that thus far there has been no problem with on-site storage.

Until a permanent solution is found for storage of spent rods, the on-site storage is perfectly safe, according to Burnell.

Burnell adds that “during the entire time that commercial reactors have been operating, no member of the public has been harmed by radiation from the plants and that includes the Three Mile accident.”

In 1979, there was a leak of radioactive material from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Middletown, Pa. To date, it is regarded as the most serious accident in this country related to nuclear energy production. 

Although no one was hurt, the concerned scientists said that over the past 40 years, 41 nuclear reactors have been shut down to restore minimum safety levels. Negin described a cozy relationship between the NRC and the nuclear industry.

“The NRC has been a cheerleader for the nuclear industry,” Negin said.

David McIntyre of the NRC said the fact that reactors have been shut down indicates the system is working.
“We do have an emergency response scale that gets increasingly high depending on the situation and whether there is the potential for radiation to escape the sight,” he said.

After Sept. 11, there is also increased concern regarding terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities. “None of the nuclear plants could withstand a 9/11 attack by a jet plane,” Negin said. “The U.S. does not require any new plant designs to be able to withstand a 9/11 attack; the E.U. does.”

The NRC’s Burnell said “there have been security regulations in place for decades and they were enhanced after 9/11.”

Any efforts at increased nuclear plant production may emulate E.U. countries like France when it comes to security and storage. Nearly 80 percent of France’s electricity comes from 58 power plants. France typically reprocesses much of its waste.

Building more plants means more fissile material that terrorists can use to attack the country, says Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst at environmental advocacy group, Greenpeace USA. He worries about the increased threat the U.S. states could face of these materials getting into the hands of terrorists. Riccio said, “you can’t be talking about a nuclear renaissance without talking about proliferation.”
While the storage issue is prominent as a public safety issue, the cost of building plants has also come into focus. A 1000-megawatt nuclear plant would cost roughly $2.5 billion, according to the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.

Riccio said that those costs don’t tell the whole story. “Anytime you hear a figure from the nuclear industry, you can pretty much double it because that is their history.”

Florida Power & Light Co. estimates that two new plants in Florida would cost a total of between $12 billion and $18 billion. Construction costs can vary and the final cost could be higher.

A recently built 1600-megawatt nuclear power plant in Finland cost 4.5 billion euros ($5.7 billion), 50 percent more than original plans indicated and three years longer than originally scheduled.

Mitch Singer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy advocate for nuclear energy, said the industry has learned from cases like the Finnish one. “We believe that these reactors can be built on time and within budget.”

Despite questions of storage and high costs, the push for more nuclear energy goes on, particularly in the southeastern U.S. Unlike Illinois, states like South Carolina and Florida have state legislatures open to builing nuclear power plants.

A motion to remove Illinois’ moratorium on new nuclear reactors is dying a slow death in the legislature and will not be resurrected in its upcoming veto session.

It has been 20 years since a reactor was built in the state.  Illinois has the most reactors, 11.

Exelon spokeswoman said the company has “no plans to build a reactor” in Illinois at this time.