Nuclear waste, with nowhere else to go, languishes at NPPD’s Cooper plant

BROWNVILLE, Neb. — There’s a trade-off at the state’s largest zero-emissions power plant just south of this riverfront community of about 150.

The Nebraska Public Power District’s Cooper nuclear plant gives one of Nebraska’s largest electric utilities bragging rights that about 60 percent of its generation is free of greenhouse gas emissions.

In exchange, 640 tons of high-level nuclear waste are stored about 700 feet from Cooper’s reactor, atop an elevated and concertina-wire-lined concrete pad with a Missouri River vista.

Technically, the nuclear waste storage facility at the state’s only operating nuclear plant is temporary. But as best as anyone can tell, there it will stay, even after the 43-year-old nuclear reactor that originates the waste is eventually shut down.

And there, the waste will languish — at Cooper, just as at the Omaha Public Power District’s now-closed Fort Calhoun plant 20 miles north of Omaha, and at about 60 other active or shut-down nuclear plants in the U.S. — until a permanent storage facility is established.

Short-term, on-site spent fuel storage wasn’t even a consideration when the Cooper plant was built in 1974. (The plant’s license is set to expire in 2034, but NPPD officials have not ruled out a second license renewal.)

The technology to enable interim waste storage wasn’t around in 1974, either.

But it didn’t take long for nuclear plant operators to see the writing was on the wall for an ill-fated permanent storage facility. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission first licensed dry storage for spent fuel at the Surry plant in southeastern Virginia in 1986.

“If you go back to the late ’80s and early ’90s … no one thought about long-term nuclear waste storage,” said Kyle Sponholtz, manager of reactor services at Cooper.

That’s because electric utilities with nuclear plants paid the federal Department of Energy more than $40 billion from 1982-2014 to a fund designed to support a permanent nuclear waste storage facility.

NPPD paid nearly $190 million over that time and has collected another $20 million since fees to the federal agency were suspended in mid-2014 — 16 years after the agency was due to take away the first shipment of spent fuel from Cooper. OPPD paid $114 million over that period.

Political wrangling has left a proposed permanent mountainside storage site about 100 miles from Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain dead in the water.

So just like crews did in 2010, 2014 and again this year, Sponholtz’s team in July began extracting dozens of assemblies of spent nuclear fuel rods from the cooling pool at Cooper. Each of those rods was inspected, organized and placed in a predetermined configuration, then sealed up in steel-and-concrete vessels before being ushered to its temporary resting place.

If this sounds dangerous, that’s because it is, to an extent. The spent fuel stored in these concrete-and-steel casks inside a monolith of 30 contiguous storage modules at Cooper is of a most lethal variety.

It’s hot to the touch and highly radioactive: Even after 10 years left cooling in a pool outside of a reactor core, a single spent nuclear fuel assembly still emits 20 times the lethal dose of radiation, according to the NRC, the federal agency tasked with oversight of such facilities.

There are more than 1,800 such assemblies in so-called “dry storage” at Cooper; the Calhoun plant north of Omaha has about 300, with nearly 950 more due to be moved out of the pool there in about three years, if things go according to plan.

The recently completed dry fuel storage campaign at Cooper offered up a preview of what it could look like at Calhoun once OPPD builds its new storage units and begins moving the last of its spent fuel out of the cooling pool.

Facing a breeze that bordered on bitter on a recent November morning, a ruddy-cheeked Sponholtz supervised at a distance a team of about 12 nuclear contractors moving a 90-ton, sort-of-air-tight, radioactive nesting doll packed with decades-old nuclear fuel.

The polished steel transfer cask being towed by a truck designed to pull commercial airliners is one of only a handful that exist in the U.S. Viewed in relief against the rolling hills of the Missouri River’s west bank, heat radiation on the outside of the cask was clearly visible, despite a 15 mph wind whistling through barely above-freezing temperatures.

That vessel contained the last spent nuclear fuel to be moved out of the cooling pool at Cooper for about eight years, at which time NPPD and Entergy, the Louisiana-based energy company that operates Cooper on NPPD’s behalf, will again embark on a months-long project to move more spent fuel into new storage modules on site.

NPPD in 2019 will spend tens of millions of dollars to build another 20 storage modules that are expected to hold the rest of its plant’s fuel. OPPD has 10 of its own today, all of which are fully loaded, and plans to build up to 30 more in order to house the remaining spent fuel at Calhoun.

OPPD plans to issue contracts for new storage in early 2018 and is also considering building two others “for nonfuel waste material whose classification prevents it from being moved elsewhere at this time,” said Calhoun spokesman Cris Averett.

“The Department of Energy is ultimately responsible or this material, along with the spent fuel,” Averett said.

The storage units are designed to be able to withstand the impact of a jet airliner, which is the worst-case scenario engineers can imagine.

But even though Cooper’s neighbors have overwhelming faith in NPPD’s ability to safely operate the plant — 94 percent of 250 neighbors inside a 10-mile radius of the plant said so this year, according to a survey released last week by Maryland-based Bisconti Research — there is some unease about living near the spent fuel.

Just 61 percent of the plant’s neighbors agree that the waste there can be stored safely; 66 percent of neighbors of the 58 other nuclear power plants in the U.S. that feel the same way.

Eighty percent of Cooper neighbors support a permanent storage facility like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and the long-stalled project could receive more attention under President Donald Trump. The White House Office of Management and Budget earmarked $120 million to restart licensing of the Nevada facility and “initiate a robust interim storage program” in the administration’s proposed budget in March.

Regardless of Cooper’s access to a permanent off-site waste storage facility, some locals say the plant is viewed more as an economic driver in southeast Nebraska and less as a risk to health and the environment.

Said Bob Engles, owner of an insurance agency in Auburn and former mayor of the town 10 miles west of the plant: “I’ve never met anybody, and I know people who live within a mile of Cooper, that has concerns about the safety of what they’re doing there at all.”

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