Los Angeles Times
June 12, 2005


Plants use outdoor storage casks while waiting for the government to
find a longer-term solution. Some fear it won't.

By Ralph Vartabedian

MORRIS, Ill. -- 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

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

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

"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

"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

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

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

"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."

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times