The real estate advertisement might read something like this: “Rvr. vu,
spacious, newly renov., built to last.”
Such is the home planned for the nuclear waste at Indian Point in Buchanan.
By fall 2006, about a year behind schedule, Entergy Nuclear Northeast
expects to begin transferring used, radioactive fuel from storage pools at
the nuclear power plants to massive, aboveground casks. The structures will
sit on a swath of land near the containment dome sheltering the Indian
Point 2 reactor.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week gave Indian Point its top
safety mark based on an annual review for 2004. But two recent, independent
government reports have faulted the industry’s handling of nuclear waste,
and critics of the fuel pools maintain the casks are a safer and more
secure storage system. The transfer, however, according to the company, is
“We’re doing this because we’re running out of room in the pools,” said
Geoff Schwartz, manager of Indian Point’s dry-cask storage system.
The pools for Indian Point’s three reactors – Indian Point 1 no longer is
active – include 2,164 used fuel assemblies, bundles of glass rods
containing uranium pellets that powered the nuclear reaction that generates
electricity. The assemblies contain enough 12-foot-long rods to reach from
Manhattan to Orlando, Fla., if laid end to end.
On a recent afternoon, construction workers were in the midst of building a
pad to hold up to 75 casks. Maples, oaks and other trees partially shielded
a view of the Hudson River. The site’s large amount of bedrock slowed the
effort and has pushed back the transfer date.
Except for the uranium pellets – each rod contains 240 pellets, each about
the size of the top third of your pinkie finger – nothing is small-scale in
the nuclear power-plant world. The pad itself will consist of 2,000 cubic
yards of concrete on top of 24 million pounds (693 truckloads) of fill.
Twenty-one miles’ worth of steel reinforcing rods will support the
“It’s a very big robust patio,” Schwartz said.
Entergy began searching its property three years ago for a place to put the
casks. Spent-fuel storage is an increasingly controversial national issue,
in terms of both how the material is stored at individual plants and where
a national fuel depository may be built. Plans to open a national
nuclear-waste dump inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada by 2010 – which is when
Indian Point’s pools would be full if the casks aren’t used – have stalled.
Communities have balked at having the waste trucked through them. In
addition, recently discovered e-mails by scientists involved in the Yucca
project suggested some data was falsified about whether the mountain’s rock
would be an impermeable barrier to radiation.
Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the federal NRC, said the Department of
Energy is expected to apply for a nuclear waste storage license for Yucca
Mountain by December. Opening by 2010 no longer is realistic, he said, but
2013 is thought to be feasible.
“Those dates keep slipping because of the various issues involved,” Sheehan
said. “In the meantime, the plants and these pools are running into storage
About half of the assemblies in each operating reactor – Indian Point 2 and
3 – are removed every two years and transferred to the pools. It’s a
process that takes place under water to prevent nuclear fires. Fresh rods
then are inserted into each reactor to keep the nuclear process going.
Because of rod turnover, more radioactive material is housed in the pools
than the reactors. The spent-fuel pool at Indian Point 3 is at the end of a
winding journey through hallways and stairwells filled with gauges and
valves. Close to 40 feet deep and glasslike in its stillness, the pool
reflects the yellow safety railings, catwalks and pipes inside the
warehouselike space. The tranquility belies what’s below the surface.
“To a large degree, spent fuel is self-protecting,” Schwartz said,
referring to the heat and radiation emitting from the used fuel. “You can’t
pick it up and carry it away. (A diver) would perish very quickly.”
Loss of water in the pools, whether through an accident or an act of
terrorism, would expose the fuel to air and allow it to heat up and catch
fire. That could lead to a greater, more dangerous meltdown – a scenario
Entergy said can’t happen at Indian Point because of safety features. The
National Academy of Sciences released a report last month highlighting that
potential vulnerability at plants nationwide. Another report last month
from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of
Congress, suggested the NRC institute new control and accounting procedures
for handling spent-fuel pieces. That report was in response to episodes of
missing nuclear waste at facilities in Connecticut, Vermont and California.
Entergy and the NRC maintain that both storage methods – the pools and the
casks – are equally safe. Indian Point opponents contend the casks are
safer because they are more rugged than the cinder block and steel building
housing the pools.
“Many of us have been calling for years for dry casks until Yucca Mountain
or another depository opens up,” said Lisa Rainwater of the environmental
group Riverkeeper, which has been fighting for years to close Indian Point.
“If done correctly, it can be a much better protective measure than
Each cask will take about three days to fill and move from pool to pad. A
cask can be thought of as a 20-foot-tall thermos. Thirty-two fuel
assemblies – only those that have been in the pools at least five years are
cool enough to transfer – will be placed inside an inner, inch-thick steel
shell. The space between the inner and outer shell is filled with 3 feet of
concrete; a 9-inch-thick steel lid is welded to the top. Fully loaded, a
cask weighs 180 tons – somewhere in the neighborhood of a blue whale or an
empty Boeing 747.
Entergy won’t say what the project costs, but Riverkeeper estimates the
undertaking carries a price tag of about $90 million. The environmental
group would like to see the pad protected by earthen berms and a web of
steel beams and cables, which would fragment an attacking jet or rocket.
Schwartz, though, maintains the casks are impregnable and will remain
intact even if they tip over. The casks are designed to last 100 years. By
then, he and the rest of the industry expect to find accommodations in
“It’s a temporary home while we wait for Yucca Mountain to open up,”
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