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“… in effect, these facilities are simply well-guarded parking lots for storage casks.”
Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future report, January 2012, page 39
dry casks at Surry Nuclear Power Plant, VA (the first dry cask installation in the United States opens here in 1986), image NRC
It’s quite likely that down a road not far from where you live or work, or where you grew up, there’s a clearing in the trees, a thinning of vegetation, and there, upon a thick slab of concrete, neat rows of tall column-like containers sit, and wait. It’s actually impossible to know how long these columns will be waiting, but even if they already have been waiting for decades, their stay has only just begun. All of these cask are marking time until the opening of America’s first geologic repository for the storage of high-level nuclear waste. Estimates as to when that might be range from sometime in the next century to—never.
As of November 2010, more than 1400 dry casks containing high-level nuclear waste were scattered throughout the United States— and this number increases with each passing year.
We’re in the midst of our research for Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been stitching together partial histories, breaking news, and repeatedly redrawn policies and regulations. What emerges is a confounding, fragmented picture of America’s nuclear landscape and infrastructure. And it leads us to suspect that, with the canceling of the partially completed deep geological repository project at Yucca Mountain, America’s nuclear waste future has arrived—and it takes the form of the dry cask.
Dry cask storage “parking lots” were introduced into the American landscape in the late 1970s when cooling pools at commercial reactors began to fill to up. Now, several decades later, ever increasing amounts of spent fuel have filled pools again. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) estimates that all existing spent fuel pools will be full by 2015.
Current law requires that spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors (in most States, this means your local energy supplier) be allowed to cool in pools for five years before they are moved into dry casks. Casks contain stainless-steel canisters that house spent fuel rods surrounded by inert gas. The canisters are welded or bolted closed and encased in two-foot thick reinforced concrete. Some of the casks are designed for both storage and transportation. Each dry cask costs about $1-1.5 million.
Dry casks are licensed or certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 20 years, with possible renewals of up to 40 years. The steel canisters inside the casks are more resilient than their concrete exteriors. But overall, cask design falls vastly short of the 1 million year safety margin mandated by the EPA to house spent fuel inside a geologic repository. The lifespan of the dry cask is desperately out of sync with the lifespan of what it attempts to contain. Long-lived fission products that exist in spent fuel include: Technetium-99 (half-life of 220,000 years), Iodine-129 (half-life of 17 million years), Neptunium-237 (half-life of two million years) and Plutonium-239 (half-life of 24,000 years). “Temporary” storage takes on a new meaning in this context.
Nevertheless, dry casks are our best attempts at addressing high-level waste storage at this moment. Casks are more stable and sturdy than cooling pools. They don’t require electricity and only rely on open air convection to further the cooling process. Their pads are said to be able to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. Yet, no one has ever suggested that dry casks would, could, or even should endure the vast spans of time required for the quarantine of the waste they hold. The recently released final report (PDF) by the Blue Ribbon Commission on American’s Nuclear Future (BRC) documents the many ways that our nation’s nuclear waste storage procedures have been largely ad hoc to date. Many of the casks now residing at energy producing reactor sites are there “not by reasoned choice or intent, but by default” because there is nowhere else for it to go. Southern Nuclear, for example, is the operating company for two new reactors (Unit 3 and 4) recently approved for the expansion of Plant Vogtle in Georgia (the first new reactors to be approved since 1979). The company expects to fill 110 dry storage casks with the waste generated by Units 1 and 2 by 2035. Presumably, many more casks will follow to accomodate the waste that will be generated by the two new reactors.
One dry cask category has captured our imaginations. It is the special category that the Blue Ribbon Commission calls “stranded fuel.” At nine sites where dry casks are being stored in the United States, the reactors that initially produced the waste have been decommissioned and removed. With no electricity being produced at those sites, the only activities are “providing safety and security for dry storage casks”—and waiting. According to the Commission, “the continued presence of stranded fuel prevents those sites from being reclaimed for other uses that would benefit the surrounding communities, and makes those communities the unasked and unwilling hosts of long-term spent fuel storage facilities without any of the rights of participation or benefits that would be provided under the NWPA [Nuclear Waste Policy Act] to the host of a federal storage facility … in effect, these facilities are simply well-guarded parking lots for storage casks” (p.39-40).
We here at FOP have come to see dry casks and their surrounding exclusion zones as precursors of landscapes to come. They are protoscapes, first responders, first-iteration infrastructures stepping off into the future that stands before us and that has arrived before our design capabilities could catch up with our design needs. We will watch and see how they fare in the absence of long-term plans.
Given the political, economic, social, and scientific complexities involved in achieving consensus for the approval of a geologic repository, when we look at the dry cask, we’re looking at the foreseeable future of nuclear waste. And we see our country’s landscape bending to support the ever-growing dry cask population.
According to the Blue Ribbon Commission:
“The number of shutdown reactor sites with stranded fuel will grow sharply when increasing numbers of reactors reach the end of their operating lives, starting around 2030. The potential for rapid growth in the number of shutdown sites starts around 2030. While there are only nine sites in the shutdown category today, that number could reach 30 by 2035 and 70 by 2050. While subsequent life extensions beyond 60 years would push this curve farther into the future, it is also possible that not all currently operating reactors will in fact have their lives extended to 60 years, in which case the number of shutdowns would increase more rapidly.”
Of the current nine stranded fuel sites in the United States, seven have waste in dry storage, and two continue to store waste in cooling pools. Stranded fuel sites include: Big Rock Point, MI (7 casks); Connecticut Yankee, CT (40 casks); Humboldt Bay, CA (5 casks), La Crosse, WI (5 casks to come); Maine Yankee, ME (60 casks); Racho Seco, CA (21 casks); Trojan, OR (34 casks); Yankee Rowe, MA (15 casks); Zion, IL (61 casks to come).
The Blue Ribbon Commission has recommended that a central, “interim” facility (or perhaps even two) should be built to consolidate the casks of waste that are accumulating at 63 sites around the country. Given the history of waste facilities up to now, it’s possible that the casks will need to be maintained, scattered and in situ, for 300 years. This extended wait introduces new problems. As the Commission noted in its interim report: “spent fuel is generally not an attractive target for theft, due to its bulky form, substantial radiation levels, and difficulty for terrorists to process it to recover material that could be used in nuclear explosives. Old spent fuel, where radiation levels have dropped substantially, may generate increased risks for theft in the future” (p.44).
In the decades to come, dry casks may very well develop new meanings and material realities, presenting unanticipated challenges and requiring regulations we can’t begin to fathom from 2012.
Thinking about dry casks for the past several weeks has actually begun to re-shape how we relate to time. We’re starting to see dry casks as time capsules whose materials draw our imaginations back 70 years to our nuclear origins. They also draw our imaginations into the far far future, where they seem to move through time more slowly. Or maybe it’s we and our cognitive capacities that are slow and outpaced by what we’re setting into motion today. When we see them for what they are in the present, we recognize that these casks stand apart from all that surrounds them, including we humans, not only because of what they hold, but also because of how differently they must endure. No human alive on the planet today will live to see a deep geologic repository open in the United States. But we all will live to see more and more casks. They are our enduring messengers, marching slowing into the deep future, though none of us will see what becomes of them.
A map called Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations in the United States shows the locations of casks today. As of November 2010, there were 63 “independent spent fuel storage installations” (or ISFSIs) licensed to operate at 57 sites in 33 states (hosting the 1400 dry casks). An independent spent fuel storage installation, or ISFSI, is a facility that is designed and constructed for the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel. These facilities are licensed separately from a nuclear power plant and are considered independent even though they may be located on the site of another NRC-licensed facility.
Of all of the stranded fuel sites we learned about, we are particularly fascinated by Zion, IL, 40 miles from Chicago. Here, 2.2 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel and 80,000 pounds of highly radioactive material have been waiting in cooling pools since 1998 when the facility was retired. It’s likely these materials won’t be transferred to dry casks until sometime around 2022. But, when the material is finally transferred, 61 empty dry casks (more than at any other stranded fuel site, at present) will begin their long wait into the far future.
As ABC news in Chicago put it, “It will take 10 years before the now-shuttered Zion nuclear power plant is completely decommissioned. By the time all is said and done, all that will remain of the 38-year-old plant is a 10-acre lot where the reactor’s spent fuel rods will be stored“—indefinitely.
dry cask storage at Palo Verde Nuclear Power Station, AZ (plenty of room for expansion).
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