Residents who live near the Kewaunee Power Station with its 556-megawatt nuclear reactor still are absorbing the recent news that the plant will shut down in May, taking with it 655 jobs and leaving behind — possibly for decades — scores of concrete canisters filled with spent nuclear waste.
The loss of the jobs as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars Dominion Resources pays locally in lieu of property taxes is unsettling enough, local officials say. More disturbing, they say, are the 42 containers of nuclear waste that will remain sitting just off the shore of Lake Michigan.
“We’ve been lied to for 35 years,” Dave Hardtke, chairman of the town of Carlton, said of the waste. “When they built that plant, the federal government said they were going to move the waste. That was 35 years ago, and look where it is sitting.”
The impending shutdown of the plant renewed attention on the national impasse over the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. And it is not just an issue at Kewaunee. More than 300 assemblies of spent nuclear fuel rods are submerged in a cooling pool on the site of the now-closed nuclear reactor at the Genoa Generating Station on the banks of the Mississippi River near La Crosse. The small reactor, adjacent to a traditional coal plant, was closed in 1987 but the fuel rods, with no central federal storage available, remain.
The closure of the Kewaunee plant was announced last month by Dominion Resources, which owns and operates the reactor. Company officials said the decision was driven by economics and projected low wholesale electricity prices in the region. Dominion tried but failed to find a buyer for the plant.
As part of the announcement, Dominion president and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II was quick to reassure nearby residents that safety would continue to be a priority during and after the plant’s shutdown.
“We intend to take all the steps necessary to ensure the protection of the public, employees and the environment during the remaining period of power generation, as the station is shut down, and throughout the decommissioning process,” said Farrell. “We will be vigilant, and we plan to make sure the facility has the resources it needs.”
But Ken Paplham, who is on the town of Carlton Board, said Farrell’s assurances do little to calm residents worried about the 521 metric tons of nuclear waste stored near their homes — especially in light of the federal government’s failure to come up with a permanent storage plan.
“This all came as an awful surprise,” said Paplham. “That waste may be sitting there for 200 years.”
A federal plan to store the nation’s spent nuclear fuel beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada was derailed last year when local opposition to the repository, which was already under construction, prompted the shutdown of the project. An expert panel on nuclear waste reported last January to the Department of Energy that temporarily stored fuel at sites such as Kewaunee is the most pressing reason for building a federal repository.
According to that report, about 3,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel is in storage at nine sites across the country where commercial reactors have been shuttered.
Taking a nuclear plant apart
Richard Zuercher, a spokesman for Dominion, said last week the company met once with local officials to begin setting a timetable for decommissioning the plant, though he added the schedule remains tentative.
Shortly after the plant ceases operation in May, Zuercher said, the reactor’s 121 fuel assemblies, or bundles of fuel rods, will be removed and placed in the plant’s spent storage pool. Assemblies have to remain in the pool about five years to “cool” or to allow the radioactive material to decay enough so it can be placed safely in dry storage.
After the active fuel is removed, Zuercher said, the plant will be placed in what he called “safe storage,” which means it will be shut up while radioactive residue in the structure continues to decay. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives plant owners 60 years to complete decommissioning of a reactor, so the Kewaunee structure itself may remain for some time before it is dismantled.
After about five years, however, the fuel in the plant’s cooling pool will be removed and placed in dry storage. The fuel assemblies are placed in large cylindrical steel casks, water is pumped out, the casks are filled with helium and a steel cover is welded in place. The casks are then moved to an open concrete storage platform adjacent to the plant and about 500 yards from Lake Michigan where they are slid horizontally into 2-foot-thick concrete bunkers.
‘No threat to the public’
How safe is the stored fuel? Zuercher said the concrete platform upon which the bunkers are placed has been designed to withstand earthquakes. The NRC has indicated the dry casks will provide safe storage for 100 years or more, he said.
As for security, Zuercher said an armed security force, made up partly of former military personnel, will remain in place at the plant, though he couldn’t say whether that staff will be smaller than it is for the operating plant.
“It will be safe and secure,” Zuercher said of the stored fuel. “It poses no threat to the public.”
But the experts who studied dry storage for the federal Department of Energy last year raised a few concerns. That report, for example, noted most of the storage cases, including those used by Dominion at Kewaunee, were designed not for permanent storage but for transportation of the waste to a permanent site.
Regulators, according to the report, have determined the dry storage systems now in use “have been judged adequately secure and safe” and can be used safely for up to 60 years after a plant is shut down with extensions of up to 60 more years.
Because the casks weren’t designed for permanent storage, the report called for rigorous study and monitoring of the storage systems to determine how the fuel is degrading within the canisters and to possibly identify “unanticipated problems” such as corrosion.
In the meantime, the residents around the Kewaunee plant are preparing for life without one of the area’s biggest employers and an indeterminate number of years living next to an impromptu nuclear waste storage facility.
“They were going to bury those rods under a mountain,” said Hardtke. “And yet now they are just going to let them sit there. I have kids here and grandkids, and we’re leaving them a mess.”
Sent to us by Steve