A nuclear option: After 25 years, Genoa reactor's waste gets new home

A nuclear option: After 25 years, Genoa reactor's waste gets new home

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GENOA, Wis. — On Thursday, a 64-wheel beast of a truck creeping along at just under 1 mph hauled a cask of radioactive waste from a long-dormant power plant to a concrete pad between Hwy. 35 and the Mississippi River, the first of five such trips it will make this summer in one of the final chapters of the Coulee Region’s atomic era.

A quarter century after Dairyland Power Cooperative shut down its La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor, the spent fuel remains. Starting last week and continuing through the summer, workers are transferring the radioactive waste into dry cask storage in a move designed to save the company millions in annual costs.

It’s a massive undertaking, more than five years in the planning, and the numbers are staggering.

All told, it will take a crew of 40 people working two shifts a day most of the summer to complete the project. When loaded, each cask will weigh 98 tons and require approximately 3,000 pages of documentation. That’s a stack of paper about a foot high. There are more than 500 steps that must be followed. Just to weld a lid on one of the casks workers must follow 120 pages worth of procedures. The cost could reach $45 million.

Nothing is left to chance. There are contingency plans for everything from a power outage to an earthquake.

Workers have completed half a dozen dry runs. Inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were on site on and off over the past two years and most of the month leading up to Thursday’s move.

“We don’t want any surprises,” said project manager Don Egge.

Bill Trubilowicz is in charge of the dry cask transfer. An independent contractor, he began his career as an operator at the Big Rock nuclear plant in Michigan, where he also oversaw the decommissioning. He’s spent the last five years preparing for Dairyland’s move.

His rule: “Don’t hurt anyone, don’t drop anything and don’t spill anything.”

A new environment

Built as a demonstration site in 1967 by the U.S. government at a cost of about $21 million, the plant was sold to Dairyland for $1 and operated for 18 years, generating more than 4 billion kilowatt hours of power.

In the 1970s, nuclear energy was cheap. But the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 brought new concerns, and new rules, that cost millions. Despite four backup water supplies, regulators wanted more.

“Any time something happened anywhere, we got questions,” said Roger Christians, who worked at the plant for 36 years and retired as manager in 2009.

The 1980s failed to deliver the growth utilities had projected, said CEO Bill Berg, and Dairyland found itself with a surplus of power and contracts to purchase tons of coal for plants that generated far more power with the same number of workers. By 1986, it cost more than three times as much to produce electricity at LACBWR as at the coal plant next door.

“It had a great design. The only problem was it was too small,” Christians said. “With that much regulation, 50 megawatts just doesn’t pay the bills.”

LACBWR was permanently shut down on April 30, 1987. At the time, Dairyland assumed the federal government would take the spent fuel, which was stored in a tank of water inside the plant, to a permanent repository.

A government contract later guaranteed it would take possession by 1998.

Twenty years ago, dry cask storage was a relatively new technology. Not wanting to be the guinea pigs in a highly regulated industry, and trusting the government to honor its contract, Dairyland put off the costly step of moving fuel into dry storage; meanwhile the company was paying workers to monitor the fuel and keep the plant safe.

“It was like bad news in doses,” Berg said. “In another couple of years… a year later it will be three more years.”

Spending to save

Planning for dry cask storage began in 2006, and the project is expected to cost at least $42 million, but it will cut the $6 million annual operating cost for the mothballed facility by roughly half.

Wet storage is more expensive because there are moving parts. Water has to be kept clean and flowing. Electrical and mechanical systems have to be maintained.

Once the waste is sealed in a canister, there’s little to do but guard it.

The casks are monitored for heat and radiation, but essentially “you just watch it,” Trubilowicz said.

Removal of the fuel is a crucial step in dismantling the plant, a project that could take another seven years.

Decommissioning is funded by a $108 million trust, money the utility set aside to cover the eventual cost of decommissioning the plant. Dairyland also sued the government and won a $38 million award for costs incurred between 1998 and 2006. Berg said he’s confident the co-op will prevail in a second suit for the years since.

While he concedes that in the end LACBWR cost Dairyland’s members more money, Berg said given what company officials knew in 1969, it made sense to take over the plant.

Spent but not benign

Uranium mined from the earth is about 99.3 percent U238, a relatively stable isotope. To fuel a nuclear plant, it is enriched to contain about 4 percent U235, which tends to split when hit by neutrons, throwing off more neutrons. Put enough of this material in close proximity, and you get a chain reaction, releasing tremendous energy in the form of heat.

As it splits, the uranium forms other elements, like plutonium, cesium and strontium, which decay faster. As they decay, these elements give off energy in the form of gamma photons, the dangerous radiation that damages human cells. This is what the thick metal and concrete walls are designed to absorb, said Jeff Bryan, author of the book “Introduction to Nuclear Science.”

A chemist by training, Bryan worked at the National Laboratories in Los Alamos and Oak Ridge and for the past 10 years has taught nuclear science to students in the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s medical programs.

While prolonged or acute exposure to radioactive materials can be deadly, Bryan said properly stored nuclear waste gives off lower doses than everyday activities.

With all the radiation we absorb each day, the human body itself is radioactive.

“We don’t realize how radioactive we are,” Bryan said. “Our bodies have adapted to live in a radioactive place. Up to a certain point, we can’t measure any negative effects.”

Unshielded, each of the 333 fuel assemblies could deliver a lethal dose of radiation in minutes.

The steel canisters and concrete casks absorb most of that radiation, cutting the emissions to no more than 20 millirem per hour at the cask wall. That’s roughly 5 percent of the radiation in a mammogram, or about 20 times the amount the average person absorbs each day.

U.S. workers are limited to an exposure of 5,000 millirem per year — the equivalent of 500 chest x-rays.

Assuming they spent about half their time at home, Bryan calculates that someone living a quarter mile from the storage pad will receive a yearly dose of radiation roughly equivalent to eating five bananas.

Bryan said the people of Genoa absorb more radiation from Dairyland’s coal-fired plant than from the nuclear waste.

That’s not to say those people aren’t concerned.

“I don’t like it, but what the hell can you do?” said Steve Pinkham, who has lived in the Edgewood Court mobile home park across from the plant for 15 years. “Any kind of leak, we’re all dead meat.”

Least bad option?

Dry cask storage has been in use for more than two decades, and about 1,300 casks have been loaded at the 104 operating and 29 offline commercial nuclear plants in the United States.

“It’s very robust,” said Christine Lipa, who oversees spent fuel storage for the NRC’s seven-state Midwestern region. “It’s demonstrated its safety.“

Opponents of nuclear energy don’t like dry cask storage but concede it may be the best of all bad alternatives.

Gail Vaughn, who lives in Ferryville and passes the LACBWR site each day on her commute to La Crosse, has long protested atomic energy. She doesn’t like having the waste stored in her neighborhood, or so near the Mississippi River, but she’s more opposed to the creation of a national repository that would encourage the use of more nuclear power. (A state moratorium prohibits the construction of any new nuclear power plants until there is a federally licensed repository, and the Obama administration has stopped development of a planned site in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.)

“It creates all of this deadly stuff that doesn’t need to exist,” Vaughn said. “I’m not in favor of any legislation that will take (the waste) off their hands.”

A retired sociologist at UW-L, Al Gedicks has studied the impact of uranium mining on Native American communities in the southwest, where much of the nation’s uranium supply is mined. He’s just as concerned that the nuclear industry tends to target native lands — where regulations tend to be less stringent — when it comes to disposing the waste.

“Literally at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle … native people are the first and the primary victims,” Gedicks said. “This is a classic case of what sociologists like myself call environmental racism.”

For now, Dairyland’s waste isn’t going anywhere.

It’s not clear how long it will take to load the remaining fuel, but engineers expect to finish the job this summer.

If a central repository is established, the canisters can be loaded into shipping casks and transported by rail, truck or barge. While Daiyrland officials remain hopeful of a permanent storage solution, most of those involved in the project concede it may not happen in their lifetimes.

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