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With No Long-Term Solution, Nuclear Pallbearers Bury Waste in North America's Backyard

By David Kravets 03.16.09

http://www.wired.com/politics/security/news/2009/03/nuclear?currentPage=all



A Holtec International welder constructs the innards of concrete and steel cask that will store about 16 tons of nuclear waste for as long as 100 years.
Photo: Jason Cohn/Wired.com

This summer, dozens of workers at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant in central California will carry out an interment. They'll carefully begin moving 133 tons of spent fuel from temporary cooling ponds into a nuclear necropolis of eight cement-and-steel tombs in a field adjacent to the plant. If all goes according to plan, they won't have to worry about the radioactive detritus for another 100 years.

If all goes according to plan:

The Diablo Canyon storage casks, each weighing about 180 tons and costing more than $1 million each, were authorized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in its ongoing struggle to deal with the 50,000 metric tons of toxic nuclear waste that's already been produced by the nation's nuclear plants. Structures like these, measuring about 18 feet high, will soon dot the landscape at almost all the nation's more than 104 active and shuttered nuclear reactors — near neighborhoods, streams and oceans in 38 states.

According to the Department of Energy, there is enough spent nuclear waste in the United States to fill a football-field-sized hole 15 feet deep. From a plethora of proposals, scientists and politicians have selected on-site storage as the safest solution for the buildup. But it's a temporary solution. The waste will be fatal to humans and other animals for tens of thousands of years — yet the storage tombs are expected to last only a hundred years.

These scattered nuclear graveyards are emblematic of a failed U.S. nuclear energy policy — a policy that is rarely discussed even as regulators entertain proposals to build roughly 30 new nuclear power plants. This month, President Barack Obama killed a controversial plan to house nuclear waste in a $100 billion facility in Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The move thrilled critics of the 30-year-old plan, but left the U.S. no closer to a practical, long-term solution, even as an additional 30,000 metric tons (.pdf) more of nuclear waste is expected to be generated in the coming decades.

"The reality is we created waste that we don't know what to do with," says Don Hancock, director of the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque, New Mexico nuclear think tank. "People are capable of creating problems we don't know how to solve."

This structure will end up weighing about 180,000 pounds, to seal off nuclear waste smoldering at 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
Photo: Jason Cohn/Wired.com
Statistics from the National Energy Institute show 63 active and defunct nuclear power reactors have on-site dry-cask storage in the United States. Utilities representing another 52 reactors have casks under construction or in the licensing stage. Critics worry that the plan has the U.S. populating its landscape with dozens of radioactive targets for terrorists. About 160 million Americans already live within 75 miles of temporarily stored nuclear waste.

Scientists from across the globe are searching for something better. Europe, Russia and Japan recycle spent fuel — meaning there is less waste to store. That practice was largely abandoned in the United States, because the process can produce weaponized plutonium, potentially sparking an international outcry. As an alternative, physicists at the University of Texas at Austin propose burning the waste using a fusion-fission hybrid reactor. The technology, they reported (.pdf) in December's Fusion Engineering and Design, would hasten the speed at which the radioactivity of waste decays.

"You would only have to isolate the waste on the order of hundreds of years," researcher Swadesh Mahajan says in an interview. "That's a far, far easier thing to do than thousands of years."

Other proposals involve sealing waste inside the polar ice caps, housing it at the bottom of the ocean. or even rocketing it into space. Each technique comes with its own problems, such as the cost of launching thousands of rockets and the attendant risk of one exploding in the Earth's atmosphere.

"Nuclear power plants were not designed to have the capacity to store waste indefinitely," says Steve Kerekes, a director of the NEI. "The government's policy is, 'We'll work out the details later.'"

For now, on-site storage is becoming a big business. One of the world's leading temporary-storage–facility manufacturers, Holtec International in Pittsburgh, churns out about 100 storage casks a year. Each takes two years to produce and costs about $1 million.

Spent–nuclear-fuel storage casks, like the one being welded here, will dot the landscape of nearly every one of the active and deactivated nuclear power plants in the United States.
Photo: Jason Cohn/Wired.com
The company now has so-called "dry-cask–storage" contracts with 49 nuclear sites around the world, including Diablo Canyon and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which in 1986 released a plume of radiation stretching from its home in the Ukraine to Europe and beyond.

"We have a billion dollar backlog," says company spokeswoman Joy Russell.

Holtec's Hi-Storm 100 System casks are the models being installed at Diablo Canyon. They stand erect about 18 feet high. Their 11-foot diameter is outfitted with two, 1-inch carbon-steel shelves surrounded by about 28 inches of concrete. Within, the spent waste is encased in a half-inch–thick stainless-steel–and–lead canister about 68 inches in diameter and 15 feet long. Before it is welded shut, it is filled with helium, which circulates over the waste naturally by convection.

The convection pushes the heat to the canister's fringes, which are cooled naturally by fresh Pacific Ocean air that seeps in through eight ducts carved into the cement. The ducts are covered with a mesh screen to keep out insects and rodents. The radioactive waste inside smolders at about 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Russell says the caskets her company produced for Diablo Canyon and elsewhere can withstand a jet crash. A newer version, which sits almost entirely underground, is under development and is even stronger, she says.

That's a good thing. Some scientists believe above-ground, on-site storage is susceptible to terror attacks. Those concerns have spawned a lawsuit opposing the on-site storage plans at Diablo Canyon and elsewhere. Gordon Thompson, director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, says a potential terror attack on storage facilities is not far-fetched — a position the physicist shared with the federal appeals court weighing the lawsuit.

"Hidden inside is a extremely hazardous material," says Thompson. "If you look forward 100 years, the threat of an attack is more than theoretical."

Holtec International construction veteran Ed Jablonski preps a nuclear-waste tomb that will soon hold hundreds of spent nuclear fuel rods.
Photo: Jason Cohn/Wired.com
The NRC, though, disagrees. In a decision last year the agency calculated the probability of a terror attack on the Diablo Canyon site "that results in a significant radiological event to be very low."

Jane Swanson, a member of San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, lives about 11 miles from Diablo Canyon. The group — formed to protest the Vietnam War — filed the on-site–storage lawsuit against plant owner Pacific Gas & Electric in 2002. The group hopes the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will block the expected June 1 deployment of storage casks at Diablo Canyon.

"What we would like, the big overall goal, would be us to be responsible as a society and stop generating the radioactive waste," says Swanson.

The United States wasn't supposed to end up pockmarked with nuclear waste.

Decades ago Congress realized that it wasn't a good idea to allow tons of nuclear waste to be kept in the hands of private and public utilities. Beyond the obvious environmental risk, in the wrong hands, the waste could be reprocessed to make nuclear weapons.

So with the adoption of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, (.pdf) the government promised nuclear operators it would remove their waste to a permanent repository. In exchange, the utilities were required to levy a small customer tax on their power. Those fees now total $16 billion and counting, according to the NEI, the lobby group funded by the U.S. nuclear power industry.

Beginning in June, the Diablo Canyon plant will begin the first phase of its dry-storage campaign. Workers will load eight Holtec casks bolted to hulking slabs of cement. The cost of the operation is $100 million. The NRC has approved another 130 storage casks at Diablo Canyon to idle waste for the life of the plant's 40-year operating permit.

Emily Christensen, a Diablo Canyon spokeswoman, says all the waste will be "safely" stored on site. But the power plant has no idea when the government will make good on its promise and cart away the waste.

"At this time we do not have a date to when that will take place," Christensen says in an e-mail. "However, it is the Department of Energy's responsibility to remove and take ownership of the spent fuel."

With no place to put it, the United States' lack of a viable and permanent storage plan is costing taxpayers billions in legal costs alone. The utilities are successfully suing the government over its broken promise to remove the waste. The monetary awards, already at $1 billion, are likely to balloon to hundreds of billions of dollars to fund on-site waste-storage facilities.

Holtec’s International’s Brett Beere works in a space that will soon be filled with radioactive waste, which cannot come into contact with human life for perhaps thousands of years.
Photo: Jason Cohn/Wired.com
In the United States, where 20 percent of electricity comes from nuclear power, the official solution to the waste crisis has long been a permanent underground storage facility in the Yucca Mountain desert straddling California and Nevada. But after years of scientific discord over the soundness of burying highly radioactive waste hundreds of yards deep into the earth, and concerns about transporting the waste by rail, the Yucca Mountain plan was officially scrapped this month in Obama's proposed 2010 budget.

"The Yucca Mountain program will be scaled back to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, while the Administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal," reads Obama's budget document. (.pdf).

That leaves the country with another central nuclear graveyard: the Waste Pilot Isolation Plant in the New Mexico desert near Carlsbad. After confronting issues similar to Yucca Mountain, the underground facility finally won an operating permit a decade ago. Carved out of salt beds, it's permitted to receive tons of radioactive waste stored in 1,000-pound drums from 23 Defense Department sites across the country. But it doesn't have anywhere near the capacity to handle the droppings of America's nuclear plants.

"We're talking about stuff that ought to be isolated for thousands of years," says Jay Silberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney and expert on nuclear power law. "But it will always be the next presidential administration to come up with a plan, and then they'll say: 'We need to study this more.'"

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