Some US spent-fuel storage sites are overloaded

By Jonathan Fahey
Associated Press / March 24, 2011

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NEW YORK — The nuclear crisis in Japan has laid bare an ever-growing problem for the United States — the enormous amounts of still-hot radioactive waste accumulating at commercial nuclear reactors in more than 30 states.

The United States has 71,862 tons of the waste, according to state-by-state numbers obtained by The Associated Press. But the nation has no place to permanently store the material, which stays dangerous for tens of thousands of years.

Plans to store nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain have been abandoned, but even if a facility had been built there, America already has more waste than it could have handled.

Three-quarters of the waste sits in water-filled cooling pools like those at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan, outside the thick concrete-and-steel barriers meant to guard against a radioactive release from a nuclear reactor.

Spent fuel at Daiichi overheated, possibly melting fuel-rod casings and spewing radiation into the air, after Japan’s tsunami knocked out power to cooling systems at the plant.

The rest of the spent fuel from commercial US reactors has been put into dry cask storage, but regulators envision those as a solution for only about a century.

The US nuclear industry says the waste is being stored safely at power-plant sites, though it has long pushed for a long-term storage facility. Meanwhile, the industry’s collective pile of waste is growing by about 2,200 tons a year; analysts say some of the pools in the United States contain four times the amount of spent fuel that they were designed to handle.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry and lobbying group that maintains data submitted voluntarily by nuclear power plants, provided a summary but not the amount of spent fuel at individual power plants.

While the US Department of Energy previously reported figures on overall spent fuel storage, it no longer has updated information available. A spokesman for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear power plant safety, said the agency was still searching for a compilation of spent fuel data.

The United States has 104 operating nuclear reactors, situated on 65 sites in 31 states. There are another 15 permanently shut reactors that also house spent fuel.

Four states have spent fuel even though they do not have operating commercial plants. Reactors in Colorado, Oregon, and Maine are permanently shut; spent fuel from all three is stored in dry casks. Idaho never had a commercial reactor, but waste from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania is being stored at a federal facility there.

Illinois has 9,301 tons of spent nuclear fuel at its power plants, the most of any state, industry figures show. Next are Pennsylvania with 6,446 tons; 4,290 in South Carolina, and roughly 3,780 tons each for New York and North Carolina.

Spent nuclear fuel is about 95 percent uranium. About 1 percent includes other heavy elements such as curium, americium, and plutonium-239, known as fuel for nuclear weapons. How dangerous these elements are depends on how easily they can find their way into the body. Plutonium and uranium are heavy and do not spread through the air well, but there is a concern that plutonium could leach into water supplies over time.

Meanwhile, the NRC has launched a two-step review of US nuclear power plants in light of the nuclear crisis in Japan.

The commission voted yesterday to set up a task force, made up of senior staff and former NRC experts, that will conduct short-term and long-term analyses of lessons learned from Japan. The reports also will address how lessons can be applied to the 104 US nuclear reactors.

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