Nearly half of our electricity in the Carolinas comes from nuclear plants, which produce enough radioactive waste to rank North and South Carolina among the top five states with the most spent fuel. On Monday night, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold a public meeting in Charlotte to take comments on its latest plan for handling that waste.
The advent of air conditioning in the South, led to a huge hunger for electricity, which led to the region becoming a hotspot for nuclear plants. Literally hot, when you consider a third of the nuclear waste from plants that serve the Carolinas is stored within 30 miles of Uptown Charlotte at Duke Energy's plants on Lake Wylie and Lake Norman.
Duke Energy Spokeswoman Rita Sipe says the company supports the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's latest revisions to the rule on how waste is stored.
"We do endorse their conclusion that used fuel can continue to be securely and safely stored at nuclear sites - or even in centralized storage facilities - until we have a national repository," says Sipe.
Nuclear plants are fueled by radioactive rods of uranium that must be replaced periodically. The "spent rods" are stored onsite in large pools of water or above-ground casks. The plan - until the Obama Administration halted it a few years ago - was to eventually move all that waste to Nevada's Yucca Mountain for permanent storage.
Several states and environmental groups subsequently won a lawsuit against the federal government for continuing to approve nuclear plants without a long-term plan for dealing with the waste.
In 2012, the NRC stopped issuing or renewing nuclear licenses until it could do more comprehensive study of safety implications. The agency looked at the risk of fires, natural disasters and terror attacks, says NRC spokesman Roger Hannah, "and we found that our position both in storage pools and dry casks would be safe for a period of time – even after the plant was no longer operating."
According to the NRC's new rules, waste can be safely stored on-site (in pools and casks) for up to 60 years after the plant is shutdown. Beyond that, the federal government still has no specific site for permanent nuclear waste storage.
A number of environmental groups will protest the proposed rules at an NRC meeting schedule for 6 p.m. tonight at the University Place Hilton in Charlotte.
"We really need a plan to deal with this waste on an ongoing basis," says Bill Gupton, chair of the Sierra Club Central Piedmont Group. "And if we can't come up with a valid solution, we need to stop making the waste."
Duke Energy is awaiting federal approval to build four new nuclear reactors – two in Gaffney, South Carolina and two in Levy County, Florida.