Dry Cask Fuel Storage Awaiting at Zion

Wednesday, May 11, 2011 @ 04:05 PM gHale

In a small town about 50 miles north of Chicago, 2.2 million pounds of spent fuel rods sit cooling in pools of water waiting for a final resting place.

Fourteen years ago, workers at Zion nuclear power plant’s lifted the last red-hot fuel rod up from its reactor core and then submerged it into a pool of water, joining the rest of the plant’s spent fuel. Despite plans to entomb the nuclear waste within Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the U.S. Energy Department left Zion operators with the responsibility of storing the dangerous materials on site.

Chicago-based Exelon Corp. shuttered Zion in 1998 and EnergySolutions is dismantling the complex piece by piece. The plan calls for officials to encase Zion’s waste in concrete-and-steel bunkers not far from Lake Michigan, possibly in perpetuity.

In the wake of the disaster in Japan, he safety calculation involved in storing such waste has changed, experts said. More than 80 percent of the spent nuclear fuel in Illinois remains in pools.

In Zion, and at other towns near where companies store nuclear waste, Japan’s crisis has some questioning if the most unlikely events could happen and whether they are safe.

In Illinois, 28,588 fuel assemblies, each containing a bundle of 200 rods and weighing about 600 pounds, are cooling in pools on the ground or above reactors as in Japan.

Positioned, up high, they are “very inviting targets for terrorists,” said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and critics note the buildings that house the pools are flimsy.

The Energy Department said it remains committed to ensuring it meets its long-term disposal obligations, but they have not disclosed a plan.

For safety reasons, law requires spent rods to cool in pools for five years before they can move into dry casks. These casks are stainless-steel canisters, encased in 3-inch-thick carbon-steel liners and covered in two feet of reinforced concrete.

Installing dry-cask storage infrastructure at a plant with two reactors would cost between $20 million and $30 million, and annual costs for buying casks, loading them and running a dry-cask storage facility are $7 million to $10 million, according to Exelon. Zion’s fuel rods have been cooling for as long as forty years.

By 2020, EnergySolutions expects to turn the 240-acre site into an uncontaminated field of grass. Unless the federal government comes up with an alternative plan, ten to fifteen acres of the land will be home to sixty-one concrete and steel dry casks, each weighing 125 tons, used to store the spent fuel, officials said.

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