TOWN OF CARLTON - For decades, the Kewaunee nuclear plant has helped keep the lights on in Wisconsin. But in June, the plant will go dark.
Mark Kanz is the local affairs manager for Dominion, which owns the plant. He says the plant is closing for economic reasons. Once the reactor is offline, Kanz says the plant will sit idle for years.
"What we're looking to have happen is for the radioactivity on some of those key components to decay in order to make it safer and less expensive to go through the whole decommissioning process," Kanz said.
That whole process could take up to 60 years. Meanwhile, the spent nuclear fuel rods will stay on site. Right now, some of the spent fuel is stored inside eight canisters made of several layers of stainless steel and concrete. The rest is stored inside a cooling pool. Eventually, all of the waste will be transferred into the dry storage. Kanz says there will be approximately 50 containers.
The nuclear waste was only supposed to be stored on site on a temporary basis, until the federal government came up with a permanent storage site. That was supposed to happen years ago. But companies who own nuclear plants and people who live nearby are still waiting.
"For 35 years they told us it was going to be gone and it's still here," said David Hardtke, the town chairman of Carlton.
When asked whose fault it is that this waste is still begin stored here, he quickly replied, "The federal government."
For years, the federal government planned to build a permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But the project was bogged down in politics for decades. In 2010, the Department of Energy abandoned the project and began looking for a new solution. Until the government figures out what to do with nuclear waste, it will continue to be stored on site.
So how long will the spent fuel be stored on site?
"The spent fuel will be stored here until such time as the federal government decides to take it," Kanz said.
"Anywhere from 100 to 300 years because there's nowhere to go with it," Hardtke said. He added that he is concerned by the long-term storage. Environmental groups share his concern.
"I think they need to come up with a better solution than just leaving them on the shore of Lake Michigan," said Katie Nekola from Clean Wisconsin.
When asked how long she expects the spent fuel to be stored on site she replied, "I would say forever. I have no reason to think that there's going to be any place else to take it."
The storage is not just an issue at the Kewaunee plant. Across the state, near La Crosse, it's nearly the same story. The La Crosse Boiling Water Nuclear Reactor was shut down in 1987.
"Really, the process is the same," said plant manager Don Egge. The reactor near La Crosse is about one-tenth of the size of the Kewaunee plant. The spent nuclear fuel at the facility was stored inside a cooling pool until last year, when it was moved into stainless steel and concrete containers.
Just because a plant is shut down doesn't mean the costs go away. At the La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor, it costs about $2 million a year for the security and monitoring of the spent nuclear fuel."
Who pays for that? Ratepayers and taxpayers. Egge says the company pays for the cost out of its operations budget. But it also recently won a $37.6 million lawsuit against the federal government to cover the costs of storing the fuel.
"Everybody had a contract with the federal government to store the fuel and it's in the contract that said they will come and take it," Egge said. Until that happens, he says the onsite storage is safe.
"The radiation coming off of those canisters is negligible at any area where the public could be, so it's a very safe installation" Egge said. "It's a very safe way to store fuel."
Jeff Bryan is a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He says the way the spent fuel is stored is safe.
"If you just took the fuel rods out by themselves, then they would be a danger in terms of radiation, but by putting them in those concrete and steel casks, that then prevents the radiation from flowing through the air to the nearby community," Bryan said. "There's a small amount that gets through and I did the math on it and it's about the equivalent of having some bananas in your house."
Bryan says bananas contain potassium and all potassium contains a small amount of the naturally occurring radioactive isotope K-40. He adds that interim storage sites spread across the country would make more sense than the current storage, mainly to make sure someone doesn't break in and release the harmful radiation.
"It's easier to guard something if you only have to guard a few piles rather than hundreds of piles of things," Bryan said.
"As long as there is spent fuel onsite there will be a need for security," added Kanz. He says it's not clear how that security will be paid for yet. But he says a special decommissioning fund, paid for by Wisconsin
ratepayers, has $519 million in it. If and when the day comes that the federal government picks up the nuclear waste, Kanz says it's ready to be transported.
"Take the door off, pull the cask out, put it on a truck or train or whatever and transport it to wherever it needs to go," Kanz said.
When asked if that will happen in our lifetime, Kanz replied, "I thought Yucca Mountain was going to happen in our lifetime. I'm not so sure that that's the case anymore."
Meanwhile, the frustration for some continues.
"The federal government should live up to its obligation and remove it," said Hardkte. But he says he's not holding his breath.
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