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Oconee nuclear plant accident concerns
Duke Power and the federal group

Oct. 27, 2004

Concerns about future storage needs have been raised after and accidental discharge of 10,000 gallons of water covering spent nuclear fuel rods at Oconee Nuclear Station in Upstate South Carolina.

Operators at the Oconee Nuclear Staion were trying to add water to one pool while draining another. Mel Shannon, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's senior resident inspector, said water drained into a storage tank at the Duke Power facility after a valve was left open. A shift manager, who was supposed to make sure the two operations did not overlap, "missed it," he said.

Duke Power is analyzing the incident. "We're going to do whatever we need to do to prevent it from happening again," Duke Power spokeswoman Rose Cummings said.

Even if 40,000 gallons drained from the tank to the level of the drain, several feet of water would till cover the rods, Shannon said.

The incident underscores the national problem of handling spent nuclear fuel. Nuclear waste from the Oconee Nuclear Station may have to stay there longer than expected because there is not other place to put it, warns the Environmental Working Group. The Washington-based organization says Oconee Nuclear Station could end up stuck with the 1,095 metric tons of waste.

Nevada's Yucca Mountain's nuclear waste repository will fill up almost as soon as it opens in 2010 or 2011 says the group. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to renew reactor licenses across the country and that will generate more waste that has nowhere to go, explains the Environmental Working Group. Plans call for Yucca Mountain to take 77,000 metric tons of waste, but it can hold closer to 120,000 metric tons, Nuclear Energy Institue spokeswoman Thelma Wiggins said. The industry group says another repository could be necessary, but not for several decades.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says he expects Yucca Mountain will have enough room to hold nuclear waste for the next 100 years. Earlier this year, he won approval for a plan to solidify and permanently store nuclear material dregs in tanks at the Savannah River Site in an effort to reduce removal and storage costs.

Graham said, the US could expand their reliance on nuclear energy and cut down on radioactive waste through reprocessing as France is now doing. Aproximately 90% of the spent fuel rods could be reprocessed at Oconee Nuclear Station, Graham said. "That's probably not the most economical way to generate new fuel, but it does help you in the waste stream," Graham said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has awarded new licenses to 26 of the nation's 103 power plants, and the rest are expected to seek renewals, Wiggins said. At the same time, the industry has an "aggressive" plan to expand by as many as 50 plants by 2020, she said.

Eliminating plants could drive up electricity costs, Wiggins said.

"When you start looking at the cost to consumers, nuclear is the cheapest form of electricity we have, second only to hydro," she said.