Virginia Ranks High for Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage
Oct. 21In the years ahead, Virginia will store more radioactive waste from nuclear power plants than any other state except South Carolina, according to a national report to be released today, while North Carolina will keep the fourth largest stockpile in the country.
The report by the Environmental Working Group is based on figures from the U.S. Department of Energy and is intended to make a point: Even if a federal waste site opens as planned by 2011 at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert, nuclear plants across the nation still will have to keep and safeguard tons of uranium-rich fuel rods in their own backyards.
"The public has been told that Yucca Mountain would handle all of these materials, that this was the solution. But it's not true," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization based in Washington. "It's the big lie about nuclear power in this country."
Richard Zuercher, a spokesman for Dominion, the Richmond-based electric utility that owns both nuclear plants in Virginia North Anna, 60 miles northwest of Richmond, and Surry, about 50 miles west of Norfolk dismissed the study as politically motivated and alarmist.
While conceding that Yucca Mountain will not likely have enough room for all waste stored at the two Virginia power stations, Zuercher said Dominion is capable of handling its own leftover materials.
"We can safely manage the wastes on site," he said, noting that the company has done so without incident at Surry since 1986.
The environmental report also seeks to shed light on a recent surge in the relicensing of old nuclear power plants, to extend their lives by 20 years.
Wiles said it was no coincidence that the trend took off soon after Congress in July 2002 endorsed Yucca Mountain as an ample, environmentally safe repository for highly radioactive wastes. Numerous plants received relicensing afterward, and more are pending.
"To us, it seems obvious there was connection," Wiles said. "It sent a message to the industry get your license done now while the public thinks the waste issue has been taken care of."
Dominion started its relicensing process well in advance of the congressional vote and received its 20-year extensions for Surry and Lake Anna from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March 2003.
Each plant has two nuclear reactors. Surry now is approved to operate them until 2032 and 2033, while North Anna's reactors are good through 2038 and 2040. The plants generate enough electricity to power about 850,000 homes.
Like most nuclear operators, Dominion stores its spent fuel rods in pools and in steel casks. The casks, about 16 feet tall, are set on concrete pads near the plants. They are protected by TV monitors, motion detectors, a security detail and lines of locked wire fence.
Dominion received approval last year to build a third concrete pad at Surry and two others at North Anna, Zuercher said. The utility will be shifting its storage technology when the centers open in 2007 at Surry and 2008 at North Anna, he said.
Bunker-like structures will hold the long, enriched fuel rods, Zuercher explained, instead of the current method of standing them on end in Thermos-like casks. Security and efficiency should be increased, he said.
The report said North Anna holds about 915 metric tons of such wastes today and will add an additional 766 metric tons through its relicensing. At Surry, about 960 metric tons are stored, with an additional 668 tons expected over the next three decades. Zuercher said those figures seemed correct.
The total increase of 1,434 metric tons is second only to South Carolina's expected stockpile and is followed by Florida's and then North Carolina's total tonnage.
The government has spent billions on Yucca Mountain. The proposed waste site, in salt caverns about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas, still must win a license, which environmentalists and some politicians are vowing to fight.
At the earliest, the repository could open by 2011 and, under federal law, it can hold no more than 70,000 metric tons of uranium. The facility would accept nuclear wastes from commercial power plants and military installations.
The law could be changed to allow Yucca Mountain to take more tonnage, but that would likely ignite more controversy and require more preparatory work, officials said. Discussions already have begun to find another repository site, perhaps in the eastern United States, deep within granite caverns, according to published reports.
European nations, which rely more heavily on nuclear energy than the United States, similarly are scouting for waste repositories while temporarily storing their spent fuel.
© 2004, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.