Nearly 25 years into operation, the Clinton Power Station is running out of room to store spent nuclear fuel.


Parent company Exelon Corp. plans to break ground by early 2012 for an above-ground storage facility that would provide sufficient space for spent-fuel storage to carry the plant, which is 60 miles northeast of Springfield, through its licensed operating life of 2026.


 

Nearly 25 years into operation, the Clinton Power Station is running out of room to store spent nuclear fuel.

Parent company Exelon Corp. plans to break ground by early 2012 for an above-ground storage facility that would provide sufficient space for spent-fuel storage to carry the plant, which is 60 miles northeast of Springfield, through its licensed operating life of 2026.

“We would reach capacity by the end of 2016, if we weren’t doing what we’re doing with above-ground, dry storage,” said Bill Harris, director of communications at the Clinton station.

He added it is a step that has been taken at nuclear reactors across the country — including at other Exelon plants in Illinois — after decades of unresolved debate over the need for a central, national storage facility.

“The solution was going to be centralized storage,” Harris said. “We cannot run out of room in spent-fuel pools, so we had to have an alternative.”

Chicago-based Exelon is one of the world’s largest operators of nuclear plants, with 10 power plants and 17 reactors in Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The company has approximately 20 percent of the nation’s generating capacity.

Illinois has six of the power plants and 11 reactors.

 

Limited capacity

Deep within the Clinton Power Station, metal storage racks — the appearance from above is something akin to large, steel cages stacked one on the other — reside at the bottom of a bluish but clear pool of water.

It is here every two years that half of about 630 fuel bundles are rotated out of the reactor into the storage pool. The water is about 20 feet deep, and the spent fuel is below ground level, said Jeff Stovall, radiation protection manager for the plant.

“The uranium fuel only has a certain amount of energy in it, so every 24 months, we change out fuel,” he said.

Stovall said about 1,800 company workers and private contractors are called in during a three-week refueling shutdown every two years. In addition to moving half of the reactor fuel to storage and loading new fuel, plant maintenance is performed.

In addition to spent fuel, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires power plants to have sufficient storage space to offload the reactor fuel in case of emergencies. Harris said that, at this point, the Clinton station would run out of that capacity in 2016.

Exelon’s goal is to begin dry-cask storage in 2015.

“It’s literally a gigantic, 350-ton, concrete re-enforced cast with a steel liner,” said Harris.

Spent fuel still would have to be stored by the pool method for at least five years.

The new storage site, which would have the capacity for 55 tons of spent fuel every two years, is within the current security perimeter of the plant. The module units also could be moved to a central storage facility, should Congress eventually establish a national site.

 

Yucca Mountain

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, approximately 71,600 tons of spent uranium fuel from 50 years of operation is stored at the nation’s nuclear plants — spent fuel that has a half life of thousands of years.

Illinois, with more reactors than any other state, has the most spent fuel in storage at nearly 8,400 tons.

As a result of the growing stockpile, 55 nuclear plants in 31 states have switched to the above-ground, dry-cask storage, said the institute’s Tom Kauffman.

NEI estimates an initial investment of $10 million to $20 million for a dry-storage facility, followed by operations cost of $5 million to $7 million a year.

He said the industry group continues to support a central storage facility, as has been proposed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. A presidential commission is expected to release a report this summer on long-term storage options for spent fuel and nuclear waste, including ways to recycle used fuel.

Congress approved the Yucca Mountain site during the second Bush administration, but the plan was put on hold by the Obama administration while the commission completes its work. In the interim, Kauffman said, dry-cask storage is the best short-term alternative.

“Of course, we’re going to need long-term, geologic storage, no matter what. We’re also talking about high-level radioactive waste materials from weapons and research facilities,” Kauffmann said. “They are going to need the space, too.”

50-year debate

 

The federal government has the responsibility to “provide for the permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste and such spent nuclear fuel to protect public health and the environment,” according to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

 

A 1982 update also required plant operators to pay in to a fund for establishment of a central repository, while requiring Congress to approve a site by 1998. The NEI estimates $35.1 billion has been paid into the fund and $10.8 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain project.

 

Nuclear energy opponents say there is good reason for the decades of government delays for a power source that is unsafe to begin with.

 

After the earthquake disaster at the Japanese nuclear plant in March, the Nuclear Energy Information Service in Chicago warned that the spent-fuel “pools” at the Fukushima plant are similar to those at Exelon plants at Dresden and the Quad Cities.

 

“At Dresden and Quad Cities, they are not only outside the containments,” said a statement from executive director David Kraft, “they are positioned on the second floor of the buildings, meaning that a pipe break on the lines feeding cooling water to the pools would result in the pools draining, the fuel overheating, and ultimately melting and causing an uncontrollable fire. “

 

Kraft said the plants could be affected by a major quake along the New Madrid fault in southern Illinois and southeast Missouri, or an accident such as an airliner crash.

 

“This is not as inconceivable as it sounds,” Kraft said.

 

Second reactor?

 

It has been about six years since the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Exelon an early-site permit for a second reactor tower at Clinton. Original plans for a second rector were dropped as a result of cost overruns and delays during construction in the 1970s.

 

The early-site permit remains in effect, but Harris said the company has no immediate plans to apply for construction or operating approval.

 

“It’s a matter of economics and demand,” Harris said.

 

He also pointed out Illinois has had a moratorium on nuclear plant construction since 1987. The Illinois Senate sponsor said last month she has indefinitely postponed action on a bill lifting the ban as a result of the disaster in Japan.

 

***

 

About the Clinton Power Station

 

*Exelon Corp. of Chicago is the plant owner.

 

*Construction began in 1976; plant began generation in 1987. Plans for a second reactor were canceled as a result of delays and cost overruns.

 

*Plant is on Clinton Lake, about 60 miles northeast of Springfield in DeWitt County.

 

*Generation: 8.6 million megawatts in 2010; serves 1 million customers.

 

*Work force: 650

 

*Type of plant: Boiling water reactor generates steam for turbines; currently licensed to operate until 2026.

 

Sources: Archives of The State Journal-Register and Exelon Corp.

 

Wet vs. dry storage

 

About half the nation’s reactors, including Clinton, use an underground “rack” system that stores spent fuel in pools of water. The others rely on above-ground, “dry” storage using casts made of steel or steel re-enforced concrete.

 

At current storage rates, the Clinton station capacity would be exceeded in 2016. Exelon plans to begin construction of “dry” storage by early 2012 and to begin moving spent fuel into the containers in 2015.

 

Security tight at Clinton plant

 

CLINTON — At first glance, the Clinton Power Station appears as much prison as power plant with its concrete walls, high fences, razor wire, automatic weapons on security staff and firing towers.

 

“This was all a result of Sept. 11 (2001),” plant spokesman Bill Harris said of the security measures.

 

A tour of the power plant involves a maze of multiple floor levels, intersecting hallways, overhead pipes, metal detectors, body scans and badge-operated locks sequenced to operate depending on the level of security.

 

“It’s like a honeycomb,” said Harris, who retired from the Navy before joining Exelon Corp., the plant owner.

 

Earplugs and radiation-detection devices must be worn in the plant interior. A tunnel leading to the reactor room is cut through thick concrete walls. Entry is through heavy airlock doors similar to those on a bank vault.

 

Not that the plant is walled off from the world. It is easily visible across Clinton Lake from Illinois 54, about 6 miles east of the community of Clinton. An annual community open house is scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, at the plant training center.

 

Last year’s open house drew about 60 people, Harris said.

 

The plant is an object of curiosity for visitors, said Marian Brisard, executive director of the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau.

 

“They ask about the nuclear plant and what it’s like,” Brisard said.

 

As for the community of 7,200, she said the Clinton Power Station is just part of the local way of life.

 

“They are one of our largest employers,” Brisard said. “They have been very committed to the community.”