North Carolina, which relies on nuclear power for nearly half its electricity, is home to some of the nation's highest concentrations of radioactive waste taken from nuclear plants and kept in pools to prevent overheating.
This state's accumulated nuclear waste ranks fourth in the nation by volume, according to a report issued today by the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
The waste has been stored for decades at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear plant in southwestern Wake County, Brunswick plant near Wilmington and Duke Energy's McGuire plant near Charlotte.
Shearon Harris, less than 25 miles from Raleigh, stores overflow waste from the company's Brunswick plant and H.B. Robinson plant in South Carolina. The Harris plant ranks 22nd nationwide for total nuclear waste.
The nuclear industry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission have repeatedly said that spent fuel pools are safe ways to store radioactive waste indefinitely. This country for the past half-century has been looking for a permanent site to store the lethal waste, which requires at least 10,000 years to deplete its radioactivity.
The report's author, Robert Alvarez, writes that the high concentrations of nuclear waste in this country pose a growing public safety risk, as manifested by the events unfolding in Japan.
"The largest concentration of radioactivity on the planet will remain in storage at U.S. reactor sites for the indefinite future," Alvarez states.
At Japan's Fukushima complex, at least one spent fuel pool is believed to have lost water after an earthquake and tsunami in March, resulting in the melting of nuclear fuel and release of radioactivity. Officials in that country resorted to cooling the overheated waste in the damaged pool by using helicopters to douse the facility with water.
Duke's Oconee plant in South Carolina ranks third in the nation for total waste stored, while the McGuire plant ranks eighth, as measured by radioactivity.
The Institute's report offers the first glimpse at the state of nuclear waste storage in this country in a decade. Details about on-site nuclear waste storage have been classified since nuclear plants were deemed potential terrorist targets in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
But the Institute estimated the amounts being held at 64 nuclear sites around the country based on the quantities of waste a nuclear plant produces annually.
North Carolina is storing nearly 3,000 metric tons of uranium, according to the Institute's extrapolation, ranking only behind New York (just over 3,000 metric tons), Pennsylvania (nearly 4,500) and Illinois (over 7,500).
The pools are generally held by steel-reinforced walls up to 6 feet thick, but federal requirements don't require the facilities to have backup power for emergency cooling during an accident, even though the Progress and Duke spent fuel pools do have emergency pumps available.
Older plants with multiple reactors tend to have accumulated the greatest amounts of waste in waste pools and also in reinforced casks stored outdoors. The Institute argues that dry cask storage is much safer, though it would cost the industry at least $3.5 billion to thin out the pools and store the waste above ground in the casks.
Nuclear plants were originally designed to hold spent fuel for five years, enough time for the waste to cool down so it could be removed to a permanent storage repository.
Because no permanent solution has been agreed upon, the waste is stored in pools indefinitely, often in high-density configurations that hold more waste than originally intended.
Nearly all nuclear plants owned and operated by North Carolina's power companies hold more radioactive waste than originally planned.
The Shearon Harris plant in Wake County has one reactor but four pools, because it was originally designed for four reactors. Three of the pools are currently in use and hold overflow waste from Progress Energy's two other plants.
The company's Brunswick and H.B. Robinson plants recently began using dry cask storage in addition to spent fuel pools, as is the practice at all of Duke Energy's nuclear plants in the Carolinas.