In this April 13, 2006 file photo, Pete Vavricka conducts an underground train from the entrance of Yucca Mountain in Nevada. 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 U.S. has nearly 72,000 tons of the stuff, 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. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File)
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
The U.S. 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.
the waste sits in water-filled cooling pools like those at the Fukushima
Dai-ichi 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
Dai-ichi 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 U.S.
reactors has been put into dry cask storage, but regulators only envision those
as a solution for about a century and the waste would eventually have to be
deposited into a Yucca-like facility.
The U.S. 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; experts say
some of the pools in the United
States contain four times the amount of
spent fuel that they were designed to handle.
The AP analyzed a
state-by-state summary of spent fuel data based on information that nuclear power
plants voluntarily report every year to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an
industry and lobbying group. The NEI would not make available the amount of
spent fuel at individual power plants.
While the U.S. Department
of Energy previously reported figures on overall spent fuel storage, it no
longer has updated information available. A spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear power plant safety, said the
capacities of fuel pools are public record, but exact inventories of spent fuel
are tracked in a government database kept confidential for security reasons.
The U.S. 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 don’t have operating commercial plants. Reactors in
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 in the country,
according to industry figures. It is followed by Pennsylvania
with 6,446 tons; 4,290 in South Carolina and
roughly 3,780 tons each for New York and North Carolina.
This April 14, 1998 file photo shows the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset, Maine. 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 U.S. has nearly 72,000 tons of the stuff, 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. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
Spent nuclear fuel
is about 95 percent uranium. About 1 percent are other heavy elements such as
curium, americium and plutonium-239, best known as fuel for nuclear weapons.
Each has an extremely long half-life — some take hundreds of thousands of years
to lose all of their radioactive potency. The rest, about 4 percent, is a
cocktail of byproducts of fission that break down over much shorter time
periods, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, which break down completely in
about 300 years.
these elements are depends on how easily can find their way into the body.
Plutonium and uranium are heavy, and don’t spread through the air well, but
there is a concern that plutonium could leach into water supplies over
thousands of years.
easily transported by air. It is cesium-137 that can still be detected in a New
Jersey-sized patch of land around the Chernobyl
reactor that exploded in the Ukraine
must sit in pools at least five years before being moved to a cask or permanent
storage, but much of the material in the pools of U.S. plants has been stored there
far longer than that.
have long urged the NRC to force utility operators to reduce the amount of
spent fuel in their pools. The more tightly packed they are, the more quickly
they can overheat and spew radiation into the environment in case of an
accident, a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.
say new technology has made fuel pools safer, and regulators have taken some
steps since the 9/11 terror attacks to reduce fuel pool risks. Kevin Crowley,
who directs the nuclear and radiation studies board at the National Academy of
Sciences, says lessons will be learned from the crisis in Japan. And NRC
Chairman Gregory Jaczko says his agency will review how spent fuel is stored in
A 2004 report by
the academy suggested that fresh spent fuel, which is radioactively hotter, be
spread among older, cooler assemblies in the spent fuel pool. “You’re
buying yourself time, basically,” says Crowley. “The cooler ones can act as a
which runs two nuclear power stations in Ohio
and one in Pennsylvania,
was able to reconfigure the spent fuel rods in its pools to make more room.
Still, the company is now running out of space, says spokesman Todd Schneider. Ohio has 1,136 tons of
spent fuel in pools and 37 tons in dry casks.
The casks in the U.S. are kept
outdoors, generally on concrete pads, but industry officials insist they are
safe. Unlike the pools, the casks don’t need electricity; they are cooled by
One cask model,
selling for $1.5 million, places spent fuel inside a stainless steel canister,
which is placed inside an “overpack” — an outside shell composed of a
layer of carbon steel, 27 inches of concrete and another layer of carbon steel.
When in place, the system stands 20 feet tall and weighs 150,000 pounds, said
Joy Russell, a spokeswoman for manufacturer Holtec International of Florida.
engineers have designed the system to withstand a crash from an F-16 fighter
jet and survive the resulting jet fuel fire.
Plant operators in
some states have moved aggressively to dry cask storage. Virginia has 1,533 tons of nuclear waste in
dry storage and 1,105 tons in spent fuel pools. Maryland has 844 tons in dry storage and 588
tons in spent fuel pools.
Utilities in Texas, though, have not.
There are 2,178 tons kept in spent fuel pools at reactor sites there, and zero
in dry casks. In New York,
3,345 tons are in spent fuel pools while only 454 tons are in dry storage.
No cask is totally
invulnerable, but the academy report found that radioactive releases from casks
would be relatively low.
attacked a fuel cask and managed to put a hole in it, anything that came out,
the consequences would be very local,” Crowley said.
Casks can be
licensed for 20 years, with renewals, said Carrie Phillips, a spokeswoman for
the Atlanta-based Southern Co., which has a dozen such casks at its two-reactor
Joseph M. Farley plant near Columbia,
Ala. She said officials have
“every expectation” the casks could last “in excess of 100 years
But not the needed
tens of thousands of years. For long-term storage, the government had looked to
Yucca Mountain. It was designed to hold 77,160
tons — 69,444 tons designated for commercial waste and 7,716 for military
waste. That means the current inventory already exceeds Yucca’s original
A 1982 law gave
the federal government responsibility for the long-term storage of nuclear
waste and promised to start accepting waste in 1998. After 20 years of study,
Congress passed a law in 2002 to build a nuclear waste repository deep in Yucca Mountain.
government spent $9 billion developing the project, but the Obama
administration has cut funding and recalled the license application to build
it. Nevadans have fiercely opposed Yucca
Mountain, though a
collection of state governments and others are taking legal action to reverse
Despite his Yucca Mountain
decision, President Barack Obama wants to expand nuclear power. He created a
commission last year to come up with a long-term nuclear waste plan. Initial
findings are expected this summer, with a final plan expected in January.
“They are 13
years late,” says Terry Pickens, Director of Nuclear Policy at Xcel
Energy, the Minneapolis-based utility that operates three reactors in Minnesota. Xcel is
building steel-and-concrete cask containers to hold old waste on site, and
suing the government periodically to pay for them. “We would like them to
get done with what they said they would get done.”
Some countries —
such as France, Japan, Russia
and the United Kingdom
— reprocess their spent fuel into new nuclear fuel to help reduce the amount of
waste is solidified into a glass. It needs to be stored in a long-term waste
repository, but reprocessing reduces the volume of waste by three-quarters.
isolates plutonium, which can be used to make a nuclear weapon, Presidents
Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter put a stop to it in the U.S. The ban was later overturned,
but the country still does not reprocess.
France produces 1,300 tons of
nuclear waste per year, and reprocesses 940 tons. Still, fuel is only
reprocessed once and then it, too, needs to be stored. France is
expecting that engineers will eventually succeed in building a new type of
nuclear reactor called a fast reactor that will use the waste it can’t
reprocess as fuel.
kicked the can down the road,” says Frank von Hippel, a director of the
Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.
such as Germany,
store spent fuel in casks. Finland
is building a repository it says will store waste safely for 100,000 years.
Even though there
is no long-term storage in the U.S.,
utility customers and taxpayers have been paying for it — twice.
paid $24 billion into a fund Congress established in 1982 to pay for such
storage. The charge — a penny for every 10 kilowatt-hours — would typically add
up to about $11 a year for a household that received all its electricity from
Users pay as
taxpayers, too — for dry storage. Utilities that have run out of storage space
in pools successfully sued the federal government for breach of contract,
because it failed to keep to the 1998 deadline to establish long-term storage.
By law, the money for dry casks cannot come from the nuclear waste fund, and
must come from the federal budget.