AP IMPACT: US spent-fuel storage sites are packed
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 9:24 PM
-- The nuclear crisis in Japan has laid bare an ever-growing problem for the United States - the enormous amounts of still-hot radioactive waste accumulating at commercial nuclear reactors in more than 30 states.
The U.S. has 71,862 tons of the waste, according to state-by-state numbers obtained by The Associated Press. But the nation has no place to permanently store the material, which stays dangerous for tens of thousands of years.
Plans to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain have been abandoned, but even if a facility had been built there, America already has more waste than it could have handled.
Three-quarters of the waste sits in water-filled cooling pools like those at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Japan, outside the thick concrete-and-steel barriers meant to guard against a radioactive release from a nuclear reactor.
Spent fuel at Dai-ichi overheated, possibly melting fuel-rod casings and spewing radiation into the air, after Japan's tsunami knocked out power to cooling systems at the plant.
The rest of the spent fuel from commercial U.S. reactors has been put into dry cask storage, but regulators only envision those as a solution for about a century and the waste would eventually have to be deposited into a Yucca-like facility.
The U.S. nuclear industry says the waste is being stored safely at power-plant sites, though it has long pushed for a long-term storage facility. Meanwhile, the industry's collective pile of waste is growing by about 2,200 tons a year; experts say some of the pools in the United States contain four times the amount of spent fuel that they were designed to handle.
The AP analyzed a state-by-state summary of spent fuel data based on information that nuclear power plants voluntarily report every year to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry and lobbying group. The NEI would not make available the amount of spent fuel at individual power plants.
While the U.S. Department of Energy previously reported figures on overall spent fuel storage, it no longer has updated information available. A spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear power plant safety, said the capacities of fuel pools are public record, but exact inventories of spent fuel are tracked in a government database kept confidential for security reasons.
The U.S. has 104 operating nuclear reactors, situated on 65 sites in 31 states. There are another 15 permanently shut reactors that also house spent fuel.
Four states have spent fuel even though they don't have operating commercial plants. Reactors in Colorado, Oregon and Maine are permanently shut; spent fuel from all three is stored in dry casks. Idaho never had a commercial reactor, but waste from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania is being stored at a federal facility there.
Illinois has 9,301 tons of spent nuclear fuel at its power plants, the most of any state in the country, according to industry figures. It is followed by Pennsylvania with 6,446 tons; 4,290 in South Carolina and roughly 3,780 tons each for New York and North Carolina.