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The Trump administration wants to reopen a controversial storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which is not something the local population supports. Now, after years of political stalemate on this, private companies are proposing their own solutions. NPR's Jeff Brady explains the problem and one idea to address it.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station sits along the Susquehanna River in southeast Pennsylvania. To get inside, you walk past concrete barriers, armed security guards and air-puffer machines that detect explosives.
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BRADY: Up an elevator and through hallways is a room that looks like a warehouse.
MARK PARRISH: Welcome to the Peach Bottom Unit 3 fuel floor. What you see here is the spent fuel pool.
BRADY: Mark Parrish is the reactor engineering manager and says the pool is the first place spent nuclear fuel is stored after it's removed from the reactor. The pool is surrounded with a bright-yellow plastic barrier and signs that read, caution radiation area. Parrish says the spent fuel will stay in the pool for up to 10 years.
PARRISH: There's about 2,800 fuel assemblies still in that pool. They are under about 22 feet of water. And they're continuously being cooled, as they still have some amount of decay heat even after they've operated in the reactor.
BRADY: Around the country, pools like this are filling up so operators move the spent fuel outside once it's safe to store there. Pat Navin oversees operations at Peach Bottom and points to a concrete pad against the hillside where there are white metal casks lined up. They look like big hot-water heaters.
PAT NAVIN: That is 40 years' worth of spent fuel stored over there currently. And it's less than the size of a football field, that's for sure. About probably half a football field there.
BRADY: It's not much waste when you consider that's enough spent fuel to produce about 10 percent of Pennsylvania's electricity over four decades. But without permanent storage, Navin says they're running out of room. That's why an expansion is underway.
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BRADY: A construction crew is working on the foundation. Navin says eventually the site will store 60 years of waste. Meantime, Navin says this storage is safe for now. The metal containers are sturdy enough to withstand an earthquake and - eventually - a move.
NAVIN: When the opportunity comes for these to be sent somewhere else. And these will double as a shipping container, as well.
BRADY: They're packed and ready to go, but with no destination. One company is proposing a temporary storage site in New Mexico. But Edwin Lyman, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the country needs a permanent site that doesn't require humans to manage it because...
EDWIN LYMAN: Institutions go away. There's no guarantee the owner will still be around for the duration of time when that waste remains dangerous, which is tens or hundreds of thousands of years.
BRADY: A California company called Deep Isolation says it has a permanent solution. The firm wants to store spent nuclear fuel in holes drilled at least a thousand feet underground in stable rock formations. CEO Elizabeth Muller says the waste would be separate from groundwater and where it can't hurt people.
ELIZABETH MULLER: I like to imagine having a playground at the top of the Deep Isolation bore hole where my kids and I can go play.
BRADY: Muller promotes her company's technology through events like this recent webcast. Last November, the firm conducted a test in Texas. Crews lowered an 80-pound canister into a drilled hole. It was a simulation. So no radioactive substances. The goal was to determine whether they could retrieve the canister later.
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MULLER: Is that it, right there?
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BRADY: This successful test was important. Regulators want the ability to retrieve waste, in case new technology develops to better deal with the spent fuel. And the public is more likely to accept disposal programs that can be reversed. The technology may be the easy part. The bigger hurdle is federal law, which doesn't allow private companies to permanently store waste from nuclear power plants. It also says the spent fuel will go to Yucca Mountain. Deep Isolation's proposal would store waste around the country. Again, Edwin Lyman at Union of Concerned Scientists.
LYMAN: I just don't see how there would be political support from every other state other than Nevada for changing the law so that spent nuclear fuel could stay in your state forever instead of being shipped out of your state.
BRADY: But for now, despite the law, spent fuel does continue to pile up at nuclear power plants around the country. Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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