Three nuclear power plants along the Tennessee River near Chattanooga are storing 3,013 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste.
By mid-century, the waste volume stored in Soddy-Daisy and Spring City, Tenn., and Athens, Ala., could more than double if no permanent solution for storing or reducing spent nuclear fuel is found, government studies show.
Sara Barczak, program director for high risk energy choices at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the lack of storage for nuclear waste is a national problem. But it is especially problematic in the Southeast, where there is a concentration of nuclear plants, she said.
She said reactor sites never were intended to be "mini Yucca Mountains."
"These were sites that were evaluated in the 1970s and 1980s to be homes for nuclear power plants for about 40 years," Ms. Barczak said. "They were never intended to store what is basically the most toxic waste known to man."
Spent fuel rods from the reactors are stored in water pools and dry casks at the plants as the federal government continues a decades-long effort to build a permanent nuclear waste storage facility.
Terry Johnson and Ray Golden, spokesmen for TVA's nuclear program, said the spent fuel rods in pool storage are closely monitored and removed to dry cask storage as they cool. That's because at both Sequoyah, in Soddy-Daisy, and Browns Ferry, in Alabama, the pool storage capacity is maxed out.
At Sequoyah, about 20 casks sit on a concrete pad inside a fence. Armed guards man checkpoints nearby. A similar scenario is in place at Browns Ferry.
Each dry cask is a steel canister, placed within another steel canister and layered in between with concrete. The casks are designed to safely hold the waste for 100 years.
TVA officials insist the stored wastes are safe where they are.
"We have back-ups after back-ups," said Kevin Wilkes, Sequoyah's operations superintendent and senior reactor operator.
Stored in limbo
When the nation's nuclear program was developed, the plan was that the U.S. Department of Energy would site and build a permanent resting place for the highly radioactive waste. But that hasn't happened.
Last month, the Obama administration effectively ended the long-studied idea of storing the nation's spent nuclear fuel deep under Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Meanwhile, the nation's 104 reactors continue to produce about 2,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste each year, and now the country is moving toward adding new nuclear reactors.
Locally, TVA plans to add one at Watts Bar and two at Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Ala.
TVA, like other utilities, sued the U.S. Department of Energy in 2001 after DOE failed to pick up the waste and move it to a permanent storage place as contracted in 1998.
A federal court ruled in favor of TVA. The Energy Department has paid the federal utility $45 million to compensate for spent fuel handling costs through fiscal 2005 for failing to take custody of the waste as required by law. Pending payments for FY 2006-08 total about $25 million.
In the meantime, TVA has paid $923 million to the Nuclear Waste Fund for an eventual permanent repository -- about $50 million a year, Mr. Golden said.
But Mr. Golden said TVA eventually will run out of storage space for the spent fuel.
Browns Ferry will reach its storage room capacity in 2018, and Sequoyah will run out of room in 2028, he said.
Watts Bar's storage pool will reach capacity in 2015. With a storage rack modification, that date can be stretched to 2020, he said.
NUCLEAR WASTE FUND
All commercial nuclear plants contribute to a Nuclear Waste Fund to go toward siting and building a permanent spent fuel storage facility. To date, $17.2 billion has been contributed, including:
* $478.6 million: Tennessee plants
* $701.7 million: Georgia plants
* $774.2 million: Alabama plants
Source: Nuclear Energy Institute
Nuclear waste stored locally
1,094 metric tons
812 in pool storage inside the plant
282 in casks outside the plant
315 metric tons
All in pool storage inside the plant
1,604 metric tons
1,415 in pool storage inside the plant
189 in casks outside the plant
All TVA plants
3013 metric tons
YEARLY LOCAL WASTE TOTALS
* Browns Ferry: 32 metric tons
* Sequoyah: 25
* Watts Bar: 25