Officials from a South Carolina nuclear plant will appear before a federal agency Wednesday as they seek permission to change how they store nuclear waste at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station.
Right now, South Carolina Electric & Gas keeps spent nuclear fuel rods in a storage pool on-site at the Fairfield County plant near Jenkinsville. The pool, which is about half the size of a tennis court, keeps the rods cool and provides shielding from radiation.
However that pool will soon run out of room, so officials are looking to another method, called “dry cask storage.” Under that method, the radioactive waste is placed in steel cylinders, sealed in concrete, and put on a pad above ground.
SCE&G officials will make a presentation to members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C. Wednesday afternoon. It is a pre-application meeting, meaning the utility will only be providing information to regulators. The public is allowed to participate in the meeting by teleconference.
SCE&G Vice President of Power Generation Steve Byrne says dry storage is more economical than “wet” storage in the long-term. “The beauty of dry storage is its simplicity,” Byrne said, as it does not require all of the filters, pumps, and piping necessary to keep the waste cool, which a pool does. Instead, the casks keep the rods cool by natural convection.
Anti-nuclear activists also say they prefer dry storage. Friends of the Earth’s Southeastern Nuclear Coordinator Tom Clements said there is less risk involved, “We need to get that material out of pools, which could suffer a fire or earthquake and release radioactive materials.”
SCE&G is the last utility in South Carolina to make the switch. Duke and Progress Energy have used dry cask storage for years. Power companies tend to switch over as they run out of space in their pools.
A nuclear rod typically lasts for four-and-a-half years before it is removed from the reactor. They are shifted on a rotation, with operators typically removing one-third of the assemblies every 18 months. The fuel assemblies will then kept in a pool for five years until they are cooled enough for dry storage.
Clements worries the dry storage casks may not be strong enough to withstand a missile attack. However, Byrne said testing shows the casks are very sturdy, “They’ve dropped these things from heights onto spikes, they’ve crashed railroad locomotives into them, they’ve tried to incinerate them…. They’re fairly robust casks that will take a lot of abuse.”
Nuclear plants have to store their waste on-site for over 30 years, although the federal government will eventually take possession of the spent rods. While the Energy Department was supposed to begin removing waste in 1998, various delays and uncertainty have delayed collection. The Obama Administration’s decision to abandon plans for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain means utilities will likely continue storing waste near reactors indefinitely.
“I do believe (the government) will live up to that obligation and take the fuel from us,” Byrne said, “The question is: when and what form?”