August 29, 2009
By Thomas Content
Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee
After decades of national debate over what to do with spent nuclear fuel, and with no resolution in sight, the Kewaunee nuclear power plant in northeastern Wisconsin finally ran out of storage space inside the plant.
Photo: Spent fuel is transferred from inside the Kewaunee nuclear power plant to a concrete vault outside the plant. The fuel is stored in huge casks inside the concrete vaults. (Dominion Resources Inc.)
So over the past week, Kewaunee workers have begun storing radioactive waste in casks on the grounds of the reactor, a short distance from the shores of Lake Michigan.
After a practice run a few weeks ago, workers moved spent fuel into the first of the 25-ton, 16-foot-long casks and then transferred the cask into a concrete vault outside the building Aug. 22, said Mark Kanz, spokesman for the Kewaunee Power Station. A second cask was transferred Thursday.
An expert on nuclear waste from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's regional office in Chicago was on hand for the first procedure, said Viktoria Mitlyng, an agency spokeswoman. The process went smoothly, she said.
The casks were designed to be temporary storage for nuclear waste. This year, however, the Obama administration announced it was not going to move forward with plans to develop a permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Instead, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said he would appoint a commission to investigate a variety of alternatives for long-term nuclear waste disposal. In the meantime, Chu told Congress this year, the NRC has said storing the spent fuel at reactor sites is safe.
"The NRC has said that it can be done safely. That buys us time to formulate a comprehensive plan in how we deal with the nuclear waste," he said.
The federal government is obligated by law to accept the used reactor fuel from 104 commercial power reactors, but as yet it has no place to put it. The spent fuel, growing at the rate of 2,000 tons a year, now is being held in pools and above-ground concrete containers at reactor sites.
The halt to the Yucca Mountain project could leave the federal government vulnerable to litigation from the nuclear power industry, said Derek Sands, associate editor of Platt's Inside Energy.
"The administration is gaining a reputation for being less than supportive of nuclear power," he said.
The Kewaunee plant is owned and operated by Dominion Resources Inc. of Richmond, Va. The reactor sells electricity to the plant's former owners, Wisconsin Public Service Corp. of Green Bay and Wisconsin Power & Light Co. of Madison.
Wisconsin electricity customers have paid more than $344 million over the years to the federal government to help pay for the Yucca Mountain project, according to Nuclear Energy Institute data.
Wisconsin has two nuclear power plants, located within miles of one another along Lake Michigan in northeastern Wisconsin. The larger of the two plants, Point Beach, has been storing its spent fuel in dry casks since the late 1990s.
With the two transfers completed at Kewaunee this week, Dominion has no plans to transfer more spent fuel to its concrete storage facility until next year, Kanz said. The 25-ton cylindrical storage containers are ready to be shipped to another resting place for radioactive waste if and when the federal government designates a spot for the spent fuel.
Disposal of spent nuclear fuel is a responsibility the federal government agreed to handle years ago. Dominion was the first nuclear operator to move nuclear fuel assemblies into dry casks, more than 20 years ago, at its reactor in Virginia.
"All of this belongs to the federal government because it's their responsibility," Kanz said. "Until they decide to take it and do something with it, we need a place to hold onto it. Our spent-fuel pool is getting full, so this is also a good option."
The dwindling storage space in the spent-fuel pool inside the Kewaunee plant was among the factors that led Wisconsin utilities to sell the reactor to Dominion several years ago. Dominion then proceeded with plans to build the dry-cask storage system and applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep the plant running until 2033.
Point Beach experienced a brief fire during a spent-fuel transfer attempt in 1996. The hydrogen fire inside one of the casks produced enough force to blow a 3-ton lid 3 inches into the air. That incident resulted in an investigation and a $325,000 fine against Wisconsin Electric, which owned the plant at the time.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later required Wisconsin Electric, which now operates under the trade name We Energies, to use a different kind of storage container for the used but still radioactive nuclear fuel.
Some Wisconsin environmental groups have been critical of nuclear power in part because of the onsite storage of radioactive waste on the grounds of the two plants.
As part of its review of options for nuclear waste, the federal Energy Department will explore the possibility of recycling nuclear fuel so it can be reused by nuclear plants, Chu told Congress this year.
Wisconsin has a stake in the demise of the Yucca Mountain proposal, environmental groups say, because before the Nevada site was selected by Congress, a stretch of northern Wisconsin was once considered a potential storage site.
"Once Yucca was canceled, there is officially nothing to do with this waste. It is just going to sit at the reactors, including the reactors in Wisconsin. That's a big problem and that's one of the reasons why we really need to not build any more reactors," said Jennifer Nordstrom of the Institute for Environment and Energy Research in Madison.
The issue of what to do with used nuclear fuel is at the heart of a debate that's expected to be resurrected this fall in Madison, as part of discussions on a state strategy to reduce emissions linked to global warming.
One proposal would relax Wisconsin's moratorium on construction of nuclear reactors by removing a requirement, now in state law, that a federal repository for nuclear waste be available to accept radioactive waste from any new reactor.
The Nuclear Energy Institute and Dominion have both been lobbying in Madison this year on the issue. Attempts to overturn the state's nuclear moratorium have failed over the last six years, but NEI has been more active in Wisconsin than in five other states with moratoriums on nuclear power plant construction, Nordstrom said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.