BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - WECT sat down with 30-year nuclear industry expert Margaret Harding Thursday for a closer examination of spent fuel rod storage. Brunswick Nuclear Plant opened a horizontal dry storage facility in November to help manage their inventory.
Wednesday, WECT was granted a rare, inside look into the inner workings of the plant.
117 feet above sea level, a 40-foot deep pool sitting next to the core of the reactor holds about 1,000 spent fuel assemblies.
These rods must be continuously cooled for three to five years.
In the early 1980's the federal government decided to take over the nuclear waste disposal program. The Yucca mountain project was born in Nevada.
Enormous tunnel making machines hollowed out the mountain so that spent fuel assemblies could be stored inside. The area was chosen due to its low population density and easy access.
Should rods be dumped into ocean trenches or buried, they would never be accessible again. The rods can be reprocessed (i.e. recycled) to harvest valuable particles.
While reprocessing is utilized in other countries, the idea was abandoned in the late 1970's as part of the Carter administration after concern was raised over the extracted plutonium.
For decades, nuclear plants have been paying a tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour produced into the Nuclear Waste Fund. Including interest, the total is now over $35 billion as the project has sat unused due to political strife.
Nuclear plants started searching for a solution. They installed high-density racks into the pools to create additional storage but that was not what the pools had been intended to handle.
As Brunswick's pool started to fill up, they began shipping to their plant in Wake County. While there was additional space, it was not indefinite.
In November, Brunswick opened their horizontal dry storage facility after several years of construction. Large steel canisters containing up to 61 assemblies are inserted beneath the concrete and cooled via air ventilation.
The process and methodology of dry storage was given new energy and focus after the events of Fukushima.
Early reports warned that power failure and killed the cooling capacity of the pool in Unit 4. As a result, it was believed that the water was boiling off, exposing the hot rods. Without water, the rods will overheat, melt together and create a radioactive source of open energy.
The lack of water also removes the shielding effect the pool provides to the core, creating a "spotlight" of radiation into the sky.
Recent video and reports from TEPCO show that Unit 4's pool did not sustain the damage once believed. The water was still in the pool despite some having sloshed off during the quake.
While rod meltdown didn't happen in the pool (as is now believed), it could have and now U.S. plants are looking at moving their own rods earlier.
The coolest rod assemblies would go first into the containers that were specifically designed to fit into the Yucca mountain facility.
At Brunswick, 108 can be entombed and left as is, will take about 10,000 years to lose enough radiation to be equal with the outside environment.
The lease for Brunswick's plant ends in 2036. At that time, a new plant would be built or the current one would be decommissioned and possibly turned into green space.
What would remain, is the dry storage space guarded by a fence and possibly, human security.
Expert Margaret Harding says the risk of damage to the storage facility is very low.
Plants are built to sustain documented events. While there is always an extraordinary 'what if" scenario, Margaret notes that there is a small likelihood of a major tsunami or quake hitting the East Coast.
"If they got an 80 foot tsunami we'd have another problem in the county," said Harding. "But we probably wouldn't be too worried if those casks got tipped out and sent out to sea."
Simply because they are fully encased and designed to sustain major blows, according to Harding.
Rod assemblies are in use for about six years. Every two years, Brunswick removes about a third of them for replacement.