Nuclear Waste Has No Place to Go
Obama budget kills Nevada storage site for used radioactive fuel rods piling up near power plants
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.