N.C. brims with nuclear waste

Staff WriterMay 25, 2011 

  • The Institute for Policy Studies based its estimates of the amounts of waste held at 64 nuclear sites around the country on the quantities of waste a nuclear plant produces annually.

    The report estimates that North Carolina is storing nearly 3,000 metric tons of uranium, ranking only behind New York (just over 3,000 metric tons), Pennsylvania (nearly 4,500) and Illinois (more than 7,500).

    Read or download the full report at www.ips-dc.org/reports/.

North Carolina, which relies on nuclear power for nearly half of its electricity, is home to some of the nation's highest concentrations of radioactive waste.

The state ranks fourth in the nation for accumulated nuclear waste, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning advocacy group in Washington.

The waste has been stored for decades at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear plant in southwestern Wake County and Brunswick plant near Wilmington, and Duke Energy's McGuire plant near Charlotte. Most of the waste is stored in 40-foot deep industrial pools. But as the pools fill to capacity Progress and other nuclear operators are storing excess waste above ground in reinforced casks.

Shearon Harris, less than 25 miles from Raleigh, also stores overflow waste from the company's Brunswick plant and from the H.B. Robinson plant in South Carolina. The Shearon Harris plant ranks 22nd nationwide for total nuclear waste.

Duke's Oconee plant in South Carolina ranks third in the nation for total waste stored, while the McGuire plant ranks eighth, as measured by the estimated radioactivity of the stored waste.

The report's author, Robert Alvarez, contends that the high concentrations of nuclear waste in this country pose a growing public safety risk, as manifested by the events unfolding in Japan.

At Japan's Fukushima complex, at least one spent fuel pool is thought to have lost water after an earthquake and tsunami in March, resulting in damage to nuclear fuel and release of radioactivity. Officials in that country resorted to cooling the overheated waste by using helicopters and water cannon to douse the facility with water.

"The largest concentration of radioactivity on the planet will remain in storage at U.S. reactor sites for the indefinite future," Alvarez said. "These pools are not accident-free."

This country for the past five decades has been seeking to establish a permanent site to store the lethal waste, which requires at least 10,000 years to deplete its radioactivity.

In the interim, the U.S. nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency have said that storing the nuclear waste in large tanks of water is perfectly safe.

"To say otherwise is fear-mongering," said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry association in Washington. "Used nuclear fuel is stored safely and securely in facilities that are far more robust than depicted in this particular paper."

Progress spokesman Mike Hughes said the company has 40 years of experience with nuclear waste storage.

"The practice is very safe, and we have an excellent track record of storing it on site," Hughes said.

In the wake of the Japanese mishap, however, the NRC is reviewing the comparative safety of concentrating nuclear waste in spent fuel pools as is currently done now, versus keeping only several years of waste in the pools and moving most of the material to dry casks to prevent the pools from filling to capacity.

Specifics are classified

The institute's report offers the first look in a decade at the nuclear waste storage at individual U.S. nuclear plants. Details about on-site nuclear waste storage have been classified since the nation's nuclear plants were deemed potential terrorist targets in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Progress and Duke officials said they can't discuss the amounts of waste stored at their plants.

The pools are generally retained by steel-reinforced walls up to 6 feet thick. Federal requirements don't require the facilities to have backup power for emergency cooling during an accident, even though the Progress and Duke have emergency pumps available for their spent fuel pools.

Older nuclear plants with multiple reactors tend to have accumulated the greatest amounts of waste in pools as well as the reinforced casks that are stored outdoors. The institute argues that dry cask storage is much safer, though it would cost the industry at least $3.5 billion to thin out the pools and store the waste above ground.

Nuclear plants were originally designed to hold spent fuel for about five years, enough time for the waste to cool down so it could be removed to permanent location for long-term storage. A geologic vault selected to accept the waste, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, fell years behind its scheduled opening in 1998. The site proved so controversial that the Obama administration scrapped the idea and instead appointed a panel to come up with an alternative solution.

Meanwhile, the waste is being stored in pools indefinitely, often in high-density configurations that hold more waste than originally intended.

Nuclear power supplies about 40 percent of North Carolina's electricity, about twice as much as the national average.

The pools in Wake

The Shearon Harris plant in Wake County, with one reactor operating since 1987, has four pools because it was originally designed for four reactors. Three of the pools are in use and hold overflow waste from Progress Energy's two other plants: Brunswick and Robinson.

Those two plants recently began using dry cask storage for excess waste instead of continuing to send the materials to Shearon Harris by train.

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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