South Carolina and Georgia rank among the nation's top 10 states in the amount of spent nuclear fuel stored at commercial power reactors, such as Plant Vogtle, according to a new analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies.
The study, by senior scholar Robert Alvarez, found that U.S. reactors have generated about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel, of which 75 percent remains stored in pools, which, he contends, are more vulnerable to leaks and accidents than above-ground "dry cask" storage sites. (A metric ton is 1,000 kilograms, or about 2,200 pounds.)
Georgia, in particular, has a huge proportion of its spent fuel -- 1,972 of a total 2,490 metric tons -- in "wet storage" facilities, the report said. In South Carolina, 2,305 metric tons of the total spent fuel volume of 3,892 metric tons are in pools.
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 that have not yet been revealed.
In the absence of a permanent geologic repository, many nuclear sites are gearing up to store larger volumes of spent fuel for longer periods by building dry cask storage facilities.
At Southern Nuclear's Plant Vogtle in Burke County, spent fuel has been accumulating in concrete-lined pools since its two reactors went online in 1987 and 1989. Those pools will reach their capacity in 2014, and the owners are already building two facilities for dry storage.
"One area, planned to hold 16 used-fuel containers, should be completed in 2012, with fuel storage beginning there in the late 2013," said company spokeswoman Amoi Geter. "A larger storage area at the site will be completed and ready to receive used fuel in the 2018 time frame."
The potential hazards of spent fuel stored in pools became more apparent in Japan's tsunami-induced nuclear crisis, which included overheating of spent fuel in pools.
In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is re-examining policies associated with such storage sites, but regulators and plant operators say both systems are safe.
"No formal changes in our plans have been made since the Fukushima event, and we are currently on schedule with the independent spent fuel storage installation pads scheduled to be complete August 2012," Geter said of the Vogtle project.
The existing stored fuel will be gradually transferred to dry cask storage, while new pool storage sites are being planned for the addition of two new reactor units at the site.
"The new Vogtle units will generate about the same amount of used fuel as the units currently in operation at the site," she said. "The Vogtle 3 and 4 spent fuel pool will be located in an auxiliary building near ground level, and it is designed for protection against seismic events and natural disasters."
That new storage site will include diverse features for maintaining water level and thick, heavily reinforced concrete walls and floor, lined with steel, she said.
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