Beaver Valley plant readies nuclear waste storage area
The pool is nearly full at Beaver Valley Power Station's older nuclear reactor.
After 38 years of operation — and decades of promises from the federal government that it would find a final resting place for spent fuel — Unit 1 at the Shippingport plant has run out of underwater storage space for its reactor waste. Owner FirstEnergy Corp. is installing a dry storage area outside the reactor buildings capable of holding spent fuel rods for decades.
With at least 22 more years of generation expected from the reactor, Akron-based FirstEnergy is following a step that nearly three quarters of nuclear plants in the country have taken to deal with one of the industry's most nagging problems: what to do with radioactive waste.
“It's a burden that's been placed back on the industry,” said Eric Larson, FirstEnergy's vice president for the Beaver Valley plant.
Experts say putting the spent fuel in cement-and-steel-lined casks offers some benefits over the standard approach of keeping it under water. The 2011 Fukushima disaster heightened concerns that a catastrophic loss of electricity and all backup power at a plant could leave operators without the ability to maintain water in the pools inside reactor buildings, though the pools at the Japanese plant remained full.
The dry casks require only stable foundations and natural air circulation around them to remain safe.
“From a safety and security standpoint, it's not foolproof. But it is safer and more secure in the interim,” said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The industry says storing waste in pools is just as safe, an opinion the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently upheld in a decision that resumed relicensing of plants after a two-year hiatus.
Swaths of the gigantic control room where operators oversee Beaver Valley 1 and 2 are devoted to monitoring systems that can dump tanks of water into pools or the reactor if needed, said Bob Kristophel, a shift manager there. The plant has several backup generators and other sources of power that workers test and run often to ensure they'll work if needed, Larson said.
Still, plant operators, observers and regulators agree that a permanent repository is needed.
“The pools are running out of space because the government is not following the law,” said Tom Kauffman, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry association in Washington.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires the Department of Energy to find a permanent solution for waste from commercial reactors and remove it. The government collected nearly $36 billion in utility fees to find a solution and spent more than $10 billion of that studying Yucca Mountain in Nevada before scrapping it as a repository site.
Dry storage gives plants such as Beaver Valley breathing room. FirstEnergy hired Charlotte-based Transnuclear Inc. to build its facility starting in 2012. The price increased from an initial estimate of $30 million, but the company did not disclose the new cost. It will conduct a practice run next month for the NRC — which licenses storage facilities separate from reactors — and hopes to start moving waste from Unit 1 early next year. Unit 2, which went online in 1987, has more room left in its pool.
Workers inside the pool building will load 30 fuel assemblies holding 264 spent rods each into a 15-foot-long cask that is inserted into a steel canister. It's hoisted onto a vehicle outside, which carries it to a fenced-in area on a thick concrete pad 230 yards away. The vehicle inserts the cask and canister horizontally into a concrete bunker and caps it.
The first bunker on the pad has room for seven casks. The area has room for several more bunkers.
The storage area lies outside the reactor buildings but within the multiple fences and rolls of razor wire that surround the high-security station site, so that the bunkers could outlive the plant. That's the situation at about a dozen decommissioned plants.
Kauffman and Lochbaum predict that situation will prompt the government to find a permanent solution, as companies grow tired of paying to maintain storage at closed plants. The government also has reimbursed operators billions of dollars to build the on-site storage areas. FirstEnergy will seek some reimbursement.
“This fuel can be moved safely once there's a permanent repository,” Kauffman said.
Dave Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.