Nuclear waste may not have found a permanent resting place, but 32 bundles of spent fuel rods from the Indian Point 2 plant in Westchester County have found a home suitable for at least the next few decades — a steel and concrete cask surrounded by razor wire, floodlights and surveillance cameras about 300 feet from the reactor building.
After years in a storage pool, the more than 6,000 rods, each of them 12 feet long, have been dried out and immersed in helium gas to prevent rust, fitted into slots like eggs in a carton, and sealed in a steel canister for what may be the next few hundred thousand years. Then on Friday the canister, inside the cask, was hauled by a tank-like “crawler” to the new pad, which was designed to survive earthquakes, hurricanes and other hazards.
The spent rods altogether will give off about as much heat as a dozen hair dryers running at full power, and the exterior of the cask will reach 80 to 90 degrees. They also give off radiation — a dose of about one millirem per hour — that is about equivalent to what an average person receives a day from natural sources. Officials of Entergy, which owns the Indian Point plant, said there would be no additional radiation along the fence line.
The new system for storing spent fuel is the biggest physical change required of Entergy for the Indian Point plant to continue operating beyond its initial 40-year license. In fact, the waste storage may outlive the reactors themselves. Similar canisters have already been stored at the former site of the Connecticut Yankee reactor on the Connecticut River.
Indian Point, on the east bank of the Hudson River 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, is seeking a 20-year extension of the operating licenses for two reactors. A third was deactivated in 1974. Gov. Eliot Spitzer and other elected officials are opposed to an extension because of safety concerns and are demanding hearings before a panel of three judges appointed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
As for the storing of the spent rods in casks, opinions are mixed. At first, Westchester County opposed the idea, mainly because casks would allow the plant to continuing operating for decades.
Now it favors the plan, however, because some engineers say that the spent fuel in the casks, called dry storage, would be less vulnerable to terrorist attack than fuel in the storage pools. Some opponents say a successful attack might drain the pools, which would lead to a devastating fire.
Entergy plans to keep the pools nearly full of spent fuel, leaving enough space to allow emptying the reactor completely should that become necessary. Usually, a third of the fuel is removed at each refueling shutdown, which takes place every two years.
Entergy began planning for the move from the storage pools to the cask in mid-2002. Any kind of changes at a nuclear power plant are usually complex and cumbersome, and this one — moving the bundles of fuel rods 300 feet — was even more so. For one thing, the crane used for years to lower fuel into the pool was not strong enough to remove it once the fuel was put into the canister, which weighs about 100 tons when fully loaded.
The inner package was designed to be shipped to a burial place, possibly Yucca Mountain in Nevada, although that project’s future is uncertain.
Then the Indian Point project took on a “there’s-a-hole-in-the-bucket” character when workers began excavating to build a foundation for a bigger crane. While digging the hole, they discovered that water had leaked from the pool holding the spent fuel. And a diver sent into the pool to look for flaws in its stainless steel liner could not find the leak’s source.
Jim Steets, a spokesman for the company, said that engineers now think that the water probably came from a leak patched years ago.
However, a third spent-fuel pool in Indian Point 1, the plant that was deactivated in 1974, is known to be leaking. Entergy plans to put all of the spent fuel rods into dry casks later this year, and then drain the pool.
When Indian Point was planned, it was thought that the spent rods would be removed after a few years and trucked to a chemical plant where they would be chopped up, and the plutonium removed for future use. But after the reprocessing industry collapsed, the owners of the plants in the early 1980s, Consolidated Edison and the New York Power Authority, signed contracts with the federal Department of Energy to remove the fuel, beginning in 1998. Now, however, the government appears to be years from having a place to bury the material.
By Matthew L. Wald