As a national panel studies permanent solutions to nuclear waste disposal, the operators of Plant Vogtle are planning new facilities that could store waste safely in Burke County for more than a century.
"Our plans are actually to build two new storage facilities: a small one and then a large one," said Southern Nuclear spokeswoman Beth Thomas.
Since the site's two reactors went online in 1987 and 1989, spent fuel has accumulated in concrete-lined "pools" in which the rods are submerged in water. That facility's capacity will be exhausted by 2014.
Because the federal government's long-range plan for a national geologic repository for such waste has stalled, Vogtle is following in the footsteps of many other nuclear plants by building above-ground "dry cask" storage sites that can accommodate larger volumes of nuclear waste for longer periods.
During a meeting last month with U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission permitting officials, the company projected it could fill about 110 such casks by 2035 solely with wastes from the existing units 1 and 2.
Although two new units -- 3 and 4 -- are planned at the site and in the permitting stage, the current plan is to build cask storage for existing units only, Thomas said.
"But they are being built in such a manner that they can be easily expanded for Vogtle Units 3 and 4, as well," she said.
The smaller cask site will be completed in 2012 and accept its first spent fuel in late 2013, and the larger site is scheduled to be operational by 2017. Both sites will be built within the existing Vogtle compound.
Cask storage is already in place at the company's nuclear plants Hatch and Farley, which have 42 and 12 casks filled, respectively. Those sites are among 51 licensed cask facilities in 47 facilities in the U.S., according to the NRC.
Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the U.S. Department of Energy became the agency responsible for finding disposal solutions for spent nuclear fuel.
In 2002, after years of study, Congress approved Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the site of a national nuclear waste repository. Under an Obama administration edict, however, the project was canceled and a Blue Ribbon Commission was appointed to seek alternatives.
With no clear plan in sight for a national geologic repository, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed in a Dec. 23 Federal Register notice that it has directed its staff to develop longer-term rules for storing both spent fuel and high-level radioactive wastes beyond 120 years.
"This analysis will go well beyond the current analysis that supports at least 60 years of post-licensed life storage with eventual disposal in a deep geologic repository," the notice said.
Tom Clements, the Southeastern nuclear campaign director for Friends of the Earth, said the political climate and the absence of any firm plan for a national repository make cask storage the best alternative for sites such as Vogtle.
"Southern Co.'s pursuit of dry cask storage at its three nuclear reactor sites is in line with the national trend to store spent fuel on site for several decades or longer, which reveals that we have ample time to consider long-term storage and disposal options, including a new high-level waste repository," he said.
In the absence of a geologic repository, environmental groups represented at the Blue Ribbon Commission's meeting last week in Augusta voiced fears that "reprocessing" of nuclear waste could emerge as an alternative and possibly bring even more nuclear waste to Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The commission is scheduled to make its first round of recommendations late this year.
Cask storage is costly to nuclear plant operators, with casks averaging from $500,000 to $1 million apiece, according to Southern Nuclear.
Yucca Mountain was designed to store 70,000 tons of waste from the nation's 104 commercial reactors, which are generating 2,000 additional tons of spent fuel each year.
It was also to be the disposal site for radioactive material from 121 temporary sites, including SRS, where high-level defense wastes encased in glass remain in indefinite storage.