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The nuclear crisis in Japan is prompting scrutiny of nuclear power plants here in the United States, and that has raised an old question - what to do with all the spent nuclear fuel produced right here. The plan was to store it underground in Nevada at a place called Yucca Mountain. But President Obama, fulfilling a campaign promise, put a stop to that controversial program. As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, that leaves long term storage of nuclear waste in limbo.

JEFF BRADY: There are 104 nuclear power plants in this country and they produce about a fifth of the nation's electricity. Every three to five years the fuel rods in those plants need to be replaced. Even though the rods are not powerful enough to use to generate electricity anymore, they're still hot and radioactive. Steven Kraft with the industry-sponsored Nuclear Energy Institute says that's why the rods are stored underwater.

Mr. STEVEN KRAFT (Nuclear Energy Institute): And the pool is, you know, basically a swimming pool, although it's quite deep. They tend to be, like, 40 feet deep.

BRADY: Most of the 70,000 tons of used fuel in the U.S. is stored in these pools and the amount of waste is increasing by 2,200 tons a year. The water has two purposes: it circulates to cool down the rods and it protects the environment from the radioactivity they emit. If the water evaporates or drains and the rods are exposed, that's a big problem.

This is what Japan is experiencing. If something similar were to happen in the U.S., the consequences could be even more severe because here the pools are more crowded than they are in Japan. Edwin Lyman is with the watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists.

Mr. EDWIN LYMAN (Physicist Union of Concerned Scientists): Most of our spent fuel pools are filled to really beyond the capacity where cooling can be assured in the event of a serious loss or a rapid release of coolant.

BRADY: Lyman says the ideal solution is still a permanent underground storage facility, something like Yucca Mountain. The law says the federal government is supposed to take nuclear waste off the hands of plant operators. More plants are turning to something called dry cask storage - essentially heavy duty cylinders, as they run out of space in pools, but even that isn't a permanent solution. Steven Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Institute points out that used fuel stocks continue to grow at power plants that were never designed to handle the waste over the long-term.

Mr. KRAFT: The storage facilities are starting to take up - you know, the footprint's the same size as the plant. So you're in a situation here where it's safe and secure but the amount of it needs to be dealt with.

BRADY: Finding a permanent storage site is more of a political challenge than a financial one. Even after paying about $14 billion to develop Yucca Mountain, the Nuclear Waste Fund still has $24 billion in it. But after decades of deliberation, there's no plan for permanently storing waste from nuclear power plants. And there won't be a plan anytime soon. The administration recently formed a panel to review waste storage options. Its final report is due in about two years.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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