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N.C. nuclear waste storage at plants is debated

Anti-nuclear activists and industry employees packed a meeting Monday on whether nuclear power plants can safely store spent fuel between the time plants retire and a permanent federal disposal site opens.

A federal appeals court last year vacated the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s “waste confidence” rule, in which the agency said used fuel could be safely stored for at least 60 years after plants retire.

The court told the NRC to analyze the environmental harm if the government doesn’t open a permanent fuel disposal site, and to scrutinize potential fires and leaks in on-site storage pools.

The NRC is now taking public comment on a new, proposed rule. It’s relevant to Charlotte, which is bracketed by Duke Energy’s McGuire and Catawba nuclear plants, and to the Carolinas because of the 12 reactors in those states.

The licenses of McGuire and Catawba expire in the early 2040s.

The issue is important to the nuclear industry because the NRC has stopped issuing licenses for new plants, and license renewals, until a new rule is adopted. That’s expected to be next year.

The industry argues that nuclear plants can safely store used fuel on-site in pools of water or in steel-and-concrete casks, and have ample storage space. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association, says operating experience and studies show very low odds of fires erupting in plant storage pools, one of the issues the NRC is to assess.

Decades of U.S. experience storing used fuel, as well as that of other countries, “points to the same conclusion – we can store spent fuel responsibly,” said Steve Nesbit, Duke Energy’s director of nuclear policy and support.

“That doesn’t mean we want to,” he added, referring to the government’s failure to open a permanent disposal site.

Anti-nuclear forces say the agency should stop licensing any new nuclear plants, arguing that fuel that will remain radioactive for thousands of years can’t be safely stored.

Storing used fuel at plants, they argue, poses risks including security breaches, unstable fuel and deteriorating storage systems.

Nuclear opponents said their numbers at Monday’s meeting were boosted by construction of new nuclear plants in South Carolina and Georgia.

Louis Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said the NRC’s new rule, which would be applied to all nuclear plants, should be canceled because it ignores the differences between individual plants.

Mary Olson, Southeast regional coordinator of the Nuclear Information and Research Service, added that “the only solution for radioactive waste is to stop making it.”

After decades without permanent disposal, she said, “We have nothing to do with it except piling it up – it’s piling up where it’s made and if it’s moved, it’s piled up there. That’s all we have to show up for it.”

Spent nuclear fuel, which is hot and highly radioactive when removed from reactors, is immersed in large pools of cooling water that also shield radiation. The fuel is sometimes then transferred to the dry-storage casks.

About 25,000 tons of spent fuel is stored in the Southeast, the U.S. Department of Energy reported in January, including 8,300 tons in the Carolinas. Nationwide, the department said, about 74,000 tons of used fuel is stored at 72 power plants.

Jim Little, chairman of the Carolinas Nuclear Cluster, a trade group, said U.S. nuclear plants have more than enough capacity to store used fuel on-site until the government opens a permanent disposal site.

It’s unknown when or if that will happen. The Obama administration stopped work on the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada that Congress approved more than a decade ago.

“It’s not really a technical issue at all,” Little, a retired URS Corp. executive, said before the meeting. “It’s a policy issue.”

Anti-nuclear advocates, he added, are looking for a reason to shut down the industry “and this seems to be it.”

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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