Nuclear Fuel Rods Along The Sand Dunes?

Just north of the small town of Covert, Mich., Consumers Power Co. officials and environmental activists are locked in a battle that marks a new phase in the nation's long-running struggle over nuclear power. The company's Palisades power plant reactor needs refueling. But the utility has no more room for the spent fuel rods it must place in its water-filled storage pool. So Consumers is taking advantage of a 1990 Nuclear Regulatory Commission rule that lets utilities store waste above ground without agency review. Palisades officials plan to transfer older radioactive fuel rods from its storage pool into concrete and steel silolike "casks" on a site overlooking Lake Michigan.

Unless demonstrators, who have brandished banners proclaiming "We Don't Want Your Cask(ets)," find some way to stop the utility, it will start moving the fuel into the 16-foot-tall, 130-ton containers on May 7. Such moves are sure to become increasingly common. Over the next decade, nearly half of the nation's 109 operating nuclear plants will run out of space in water-filled storage pools and be forced to consider aboveground storage.

The Palisades plant is causing a stir because it is the first to exploit the 1990 NRC rule, which doesn't require utilities to seek approval for waste-storage sites as long as the waste is stored in an approved container. Before 1990, five other utilities had received the agency O. K. for above-ground storage--but only after a lengthy and exhaustive analysis of each site.

DOOMED DUNES? Now, environmentalists worry that the plants will be using unproven technology to store dangerous nuclear waste. What's more, Palisades opponents complain that the NRC's new procedure doesn't provide adequate safeguards. In this case, the casks will be located 160 yards from Lake Michigan on sand dunes vulnerable to erosion. "This is just about as sensitive an area as you could find," declares an outraged Mary Sinclair, co-chair of Don't Waste Michigan, a group opposed to the new facility.

The storage casks are an interim solution to a problem that was never supposed to occur. Construction of a permanent storage repository for utilities' highly radioactive spent fuel was supposed to have been under way years ago. But environmental concerns and political opposition have prevented action. Under current law, the federal government is supposed to take possession of all spent fuel in 1998 and have a permanent storage site ready by 2010. The Energy Dept. has spent more than $3 billion studying a permanent repository deep under Nevada's Yucca Mountain, but that effort has been blocked by technical difficulties and the fierce opposition of the state's politicians.

Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, who had to deal with the storage shortfall as an executive of Northern States Power Co. in Minnesota, has promised to review the government's nuclear waste program. But ending the impasse over long-term storage does not appear to be a high priority for an Administration preoccupied with other issues. A permanent solution is decades away.

In the meantime, utilities are stuck. The waste, now about 30,000 metric tons, is projected to rise to nearly 88,000 tons by 2030 (chart). Almost all the spent fuel sits in water-filled pools designed to cool the radioactive waste. These pools, which were supposed to be temporary storage, are running out of room. Utilities such as Consumers Power are "between a rock and a hard place," complains company spokesman Mark Savage.

CONCRETE SOLUTION. That's why Consumers Power opted for the new designs. It chose a cask, manufactured by Pacific Sierra Nuclear Associates of Scotts Valley, Calif., that received approval from the NRC only on Apr. 7. A spokesman for Consumers Power says the concrete-and-steel containers cost some $500,000 apiece, compared with up to $3 million for competing designs. Building new storage pools would be even more expensive.

At least two more utilities are planning to use the Pacific Sierra casks. NRC Chairman Ivan Selin, a holdover Bush appointee, defends the Pacific Sierra cask, noting it has undergone extensive safety tests and can store high-level radioactive waste for up to a century. "We shouldn't have to worry about them deteriorating before a permanent repository is built," says Selin.

Environmentalists and Michigan officials, who don't share Selin's confidence about permanent storage, want to block use of the new facility--at least until the NRC reviews the site. The state attorney general's office, which unsuccessfully sought an NRC public hearing, is considering other legal options.

Consumers Power officials need some place to put spent fuel when they recharge the Palisades reactor in June. "We're a symptom of a larger problem," says Savage. The real difficulty remains: finding a permanent place to put the radioactive waste, which will be around for thousands of years. Until the political system faces up to the challenge, the Palisades predicament will be repeated at nuclear plants across the nation.

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