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Nuclear Waste Outpaces Solutions

Plants use outdoor storage casks while waiting for the government to find a longer-term solution. Some fear it won't.

June 12, 2005|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

MORRIS, Ill. — Along the headwaters of the Illinois River, engineers at the Dresden nuclear power station have erected two dozen steel and concrete silos that rise 20 feet above the Midwest plain.

The gray structures are unremarkable except for what is loaded inside: Each contains roughly 13 tons of high-level nuclear waste that has been accumulating at the plant since the Eisenhower administration. With nowhere to go, the waste will most likely remain in place for decades.

Dresden's reactors have produced one of the largest stockpiles -- 1,347 tons -- of civilian nuclear waste in the nation. With the plant churning out nearly 48 tons more waste each year, engineers are preparing to double the size of the outdoor storage pad this summer.

The plant has the same problem as nearly all of the nation's 103 commercial reactors: They were never designed to store waste long-term and are now forced to deal with large quantities of spent uranium fuel rods that produce high levels of radiation.

The problem reflects decades of miscalculations and missteps by the federal government, which promised at the dawn of the nuclear age to accept ownership of the waste. The plan to build a waste repository at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert has faced so many political, legal and technical problems that it's impossible to project when -- or even if -- it will be built.

As a result, the most lethal waste product of industrial society is being handled outside any federal policy and without any roadmap for how it will be managed in the future, according to industry officials, nuclear waste experts, lawyers and academicians.

"It is a statement of reality," acknowledges Clay Sell, deputy secretary of Energy. "Is it the right policy? No."

The deep storage pools traditionally used to safely keep nuclear waste are filling up at most plants. Utilities have turned to outdoor storage in so-called dry casks as the de facto standard for dealing with waste.

From California to South Carolina, utilities have loaded 700 of the steel and concrete casks, and scores of additional casks are scheduled to be filled this year.

It is a stopgap measure that has averted a shutdown of the nuclear power industry. But it means leaving all of the roughly 50,000 tons of civilian nuclear waste spread across the nation for the next half-century or more. And storing the waste at power plant sites is creating significant economic, environmental, legal and security challenges -- including the potential for it to become a terrorist target.

A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that the waste stored in pools was most vulnerable, but the outdoor casks also were potential targets. Such an attack could trigger an environmental catastrophe.

"These are the ultimate dirty bombs," said Bob Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former Energy Department official. "Let's not pretend the way we are storing this waste is safe and secure in an age of terrorism."

Utility executives and government officials sharply dispute such allegations, saying the plants have multiple layers of protection from any attack. Exelon Corp., the nation's largest nuclear utility, has erected heavy barriers and security towers at Dresden that are staffed around the clock by guards with automatic weapons.

Though the nuclear industry has a good record for preventing radiation leaks during normal operations and dry casks are widely regarded as safe, many outside experts say their biggest fear is that future generations may lack the willpower and financial capability to safeguard tons of radioactive waste dispersed across the nation. Waste is already stored in casks at five shuttered nuclear plant sites.

"We are muddling into an alternative plan by default," says Joe Egan, a longtime attorney for the nuclear industry who now represents Nevada in fighting Yucca Mountain.

Nuclear waste has also created a legal mess. The Energy Department is facing more than four dozen lawsuits by the utility industry for its failure to take the waste. Damages could reach $56 billion over the next three decades, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a powerful trade group for nuclear utilities.

At the Department of Energy, Sell argues that deep geologic storage of the waste at Yucca Mountain would be the best technical solution. He believes the project will eventually be completed. But the loss of a key court case last year and political resistance in Congress have put the dump at least 14 years behind schedule.

Without a dump, utilities have few options short of shutting down their reactors and eliminating 20% of the U.S. electricity supply that comes from nuclear power. And without a solution to waste, the proposal by President Bush to start a new era of nuclear plant construction could go nowhere.

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