Shippingport plans to store used nuclear fuel as nation's waste builds up
A plan to store a growing amount of used nuclear fuel at the Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport underscores America's dilemma with radioactive waste that will remain lethal for thousands of years, experts said.
Without a national plan for storing spent fuel, the responsibility falls mainly to the operators of 104 nuclear power plants, including five in Pennsylvania.
“These plants were not intended as long-term storage facilities. ... There is an unease with that,” said Tom Kaufmann, who worked for 23 years at Three Mile Island and is a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based policy organization that represents the industry.
FirstEnergy Corp., which operates Beaver Valley, announced it will spend about $30 million to move spent fuel assemblies from the cooling pool to above-ground, steel canisters inside concrete storage units called casks by 2014. Although other plants store waste that way, the casks would be the first at Beaver Valley.
The plant shut down its Unit 2 on Monday for a refueling and maintenance process that occurs every 18 months. It will replace 65 of the reactor's 157 fuel assemblies and put the used assemblies in a cooling pool for at least five years before they could go to the concrete casks.
Additional capacity in the casks “is vital to the future operation of the Beaver Valley station,” said Paul Harden, vice president at the plant.
The above-ground plan doesn't worry neighbors such as Dorothy Luchansky, 88, who has lived most of her adult life in the shadow of the cooling towers.
“I grew up with the atomic plant. ... I wasn't afraid,” Luchansky said from the front yard of the home she was born in on Kerona Road.
Harry Burzenski, 77, has lived across the Ohio River in Midland since 1954 and hasn't given the plant much attention.
“We just figured it was the thing of the future,” he said.
But some say a better plan for storing used fuel exists.
“A central repository like Yucca Mountain — the Nevada site blocked mostly recently by President Obama — would have been a central location in a secure military base ... and better than having these containers sit on concrete pads at 104 sites around the country,” said H. Sterling Burnett, a leading authority on energy and environmental issues.
At an impasse
More than 148 million pounds of high-level nuclear waste has piled up across the United States as Congress and presidents since Gerald Ford grappled with what to do with it.
It weighs more than the World War II battleship USS Missouri did fully loaded. It's growing by almost half a million pounds per year.
Pennsylvania has nine commercial nuclear reactors at five plants. With 6,070 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, the state is second only to Illinois, which had 8,691 metric tons stored at the end of last year, the Congressional Research Service said in a report to Congress.
The water pools at most of Pennsylvania's nuclear plants have reached capacity, said Kevin Sunday, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“We believe dry casks are appropriate for the short term ... but we need a long-term, permanent solution,” he said.
Gov. Tom Corbett wrote to Congress urging it to move forward with a plan to deal with the waste. That effort appears stalled.
“The Obama Administration's decision to halt work on the repository at Yucca Mountain ... is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down,” the final report from Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future said.
The administration referred a request for comment to the Department of Energy, which said it will join other federal agencies for a comprehensive review of policies to manage the waste and “provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution.”
As long-term solutions are put off and storage casks pile up, so do billions of dollars paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund by nuclear electricity producers — and passed on to their consumers — to support a national waste repository that might never open.
Congress in 1982 established the fund and required the Department of Energy to build a geologic repository by 1998 for used fuel and Defense program waste.
The fund has collected more than $35 billion, the Department of Energy said. It spent about $11 billion to study the possibility of a repository at Yucca Mountain from 2002 until 2010 when the president shelved the plan. The money continues to be collected at more than $750 million per year.
“You have to look at the big picture. ... There has to be a permanent repository if we're going to have a nuclear industry in this country,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its energy and power subcommittee. “The fund is eventually going to be needed.”
The Sierra Club says transporting nuclear waste to a site such as Yucca Mountain would require about 22,000 rail trips, posing a risk for people who live along rail lines. It would cost billions and could be a potential target for terrorists.
Other countries, including France and Britain, reprocess spent fuel to reduce nuclear waste, but the United States has prohibited that since the 1970s.
“Our plants were designed for reprocessing,” said Kaufmann of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “There is a tremendous amount of energy there.” U.S. officials feared that because reprocessing separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste, allowing it would aid in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
“The U.S. couldn't figure out how to secure this stuff, but France and the other guys could,” said Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based think tank that looks at the economics of public policy.
FirstEnergy and other American nuclear plant operators haven't pursued reprocessing because it's prohibited and not economical, said Jennifer Young, a spokeswoman for the company.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., says reprocessing would be “dangerous, dirty and expensive.” The Department of Energy estimates that a reprocessing plant with an annual capacity of 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel would cost as much as $20 billion to build — and estimates the United States would need two.
With permanent solutions elusive, there is growing support for dry cask storage. It's safer than water pools, which were designed to hold less than one-fifth of what they now contain, experts said.
Casks “will be needed whether or not reprocessing is done,” said Diane D'Arrigo, radioactive waste project director at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Takoma Park, Md.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.