News

Nuclear Waste Has No Place To Go

March 11, 2009 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Michael Hawthorne Chicago Tribune - In a pool of water just a football field away from Lake Michigan, about 1,000 tons of highly radioactive fuel from the scuttled Zion Nuclear Power Station is waiting for someplace else to spend a few
thousand years.
The wait just got longer.
President Barack Obama's proposed budget all but kills the Yucca
Mountain project, the controversial site where the U.S. nuclear
industry's spent fuel rods were supposed to end up in permanent
storage deep below the Nevada desert. There are no other plans in the
works, meaning the waste for now will remain next to Zion and 104
other reactors scattered across the country.

Obama has said too many questions remain about whether storing
waste at Yucca Mountain is safe, and his decision fulfills a campaign
promise. But it also renews nagging questions about what to do with
the radioactive waste steadily accumulating in 35 states.
With seven nuclear plant sites, Illinois relies more heavily on
nuclear power and has a larger stockpile of spent fuel than any other
state.
Besides Zion near Lake Michigan, plants storing waste are sited along
the Illinois, Rock and Mississippi Rivers.
Customers of ComEd and other nuclear utilities have shelled out
$10 billion to develop the Yucca Mountain site in spare-change-size
charges tacked on to electric bills. Most of that money will have been
wasted, and experts forecast that billions more will be spent on
damage suits from utilities that counted on the federal government to
come up with a burial ground.
Reversing course from previous administrations satisfies critics
in Nevada, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but triggers
another round of maneuvering and regional bickering in Congress.
"We are drifting toward a permanent policy of keeping extremely
toxic waste next to the Great Lakes, and that cannot stand," said U.S.
Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
More than 57,000 tons of spent fuel rods already are stored next
to reactors, just a few yards away from containment buildings where
they once generated nuclear-heated steam to drive massive electrical
turbines. More
than 7,100 tons are stored in Illinois, including at the Zion facility
in Chicago's northern suburbs.
The lack of a permanent solution poses a serious challenge to the
industry's plans to build more than 30 new reactors. Existing nuclear
plants already produce 2,000 tons of the long-lived waste each year,
most of which is moved into pools of chilled water that allow the
spent -- but still highly lethal -- uranium-235 to slowly and safely
decay.
But containment pools never were intended to store all of the
spent fuel that a reactor creates. The idea was that the cool water
would stabilize the enriched uranium until it could be sent to a
reprocessing plant or stored in a centralized location.

Instead it keeps piling up. And though industry officials insist
the waste is safely stored in fenced-off buildings lined with concrete
and lead, concerns remain that a leak or a terrorist attack could
create an environmental catastrophe.
As power companies run out of space in their containment pools,
they increasingly are storing the waste above ground in concrete and
metal casks; the Zion plant's spent fuel rods eventually are to be
moved into casks a little farther away from Lake Michigan.
"We continue to ask the federal government to provide a clear
solution for what the long-term storage of spent fuel will be," said
Marshall Murphy, spokesman for Exelon Nuclear, which owns Illinois'
plants.
Until now, the solution was Yucca Mountain, a dusty mountain of
volcanic rock about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas that Congress
chose in the late 1980s as a permanent repository. Federal officials
spent the last two decades -- and billions of dollars -- preparing to
bury spent fuel in a series of fortified tunnels drilled into the
mountain.
Without further funding the project will wind up as a very
expensive hole in the ground.
The repository's apparent demise is part science and part
politics.
Recent studies have shown that water flows through the mountain much
faster than previously thought, raising concerns that radioactive
leaks could contaminate drinking water supplies. More than anything
else, though, the project is opposed by two powerful politicians: Reid
and Obama, who is calling for more study to find a better solution.
Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the parent company of ComEd and
Exelon Nuclear, is seeking to extend the life of its reactors, most of
which were built in the 1970s. It also wants to build a new reactor at
the Clinton Power Station south of Bloomington. Company officials have
said that won't be possible without an alternative to Yucca.
mhawthorne@tribune.com