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North Carolina nuclear waste

North Carolina nuclear waste

North Carolina nuclear waste

Hello all,
I recently read an article regarding the status of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in Wake County, North Carolina.  Evidently there is an on site spent fuel storage facility that stores spent fuel rods from this and two other nuclear plants.  They are stored in what is termed "pools"  of circulating cold water to keep the waste from heating.  In a referenced article by Jeffrey St Clair in "Counterpunch", Aug 9, 2008, the danger of the fuel rods igniting is raised that would cause contamination for thousands of square miles.

I am not familiar with that publication, but am curious to know if anyone actually in the industry is aware of this concern.  It seems an odd way of storing such dangerous material with what would seem an inordinate number of possible points of failure that could result in very disastrous consequences.

Is this a disaster waiting to happen?  Are the dangers overstated?  Are these really open pools?  Is this water in direct contact with the fuel rods?  Is the water recirculated, refrigerated and pumped?  Is this a common practice?  So many questions for a layman not in this field.

Any input from those in the know would be appreciated.


RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

I could not find the article but the "publication" is a political, left-leaning organization, judging by their website.  Everyone in the industry is aware of this and it is not a concern.  All spent fuel for reactor sites is stored on site because the federal government has failed to construct and license a national facility for the storage of spent nuclear fuel.  There is NO danger of the fuel rods igniting.  This is not a disaster waiting to happen.  The dangers are completely overstated.  

The majority of spent fuel is stored in an open pool, with the water in direct contact with the fuel rods.  After the fuel has cooled for several years, it can be stored in sealed casks, without water.  

A better option for storage is to recycle the used fuel to remove the fuel that is still usable (only a small portion of the available fuel is actually used in a once-through pass through the reactor) put that usable fuel into new fuel and separate out the bad stuff.  This would cut your nuclear "waste" by volume to about 10%, provide a lot more fuel to power current and future reactors and make the fuel supply last hundreds of years more.  The "waste" could then be vitrified into a glass encasement for safe disposal in a relatively small storage facility.  

The French have been recycling their used fuel for years without issue.  It is more costly than fresh fuel, but as stated reduced drastically the amount of "waste" that must be dealt with.  President Jimmy Carter made a presidential edict in the 70's that the US would not recycle fuel, so we consequently have all commercial reactor fuel for the last 30 years sitting and waiting for the federal government to fulfill their obligation.  Even all that fuel for the past 30-40 years would only fill a football field about 30 yards deep.  And that amount could be reduced exponentially by re-processing.  This would also eliminate some of the technical hurdles that doomed Yucca mountain, namely trying to store the fuel in such a way that it could be retrieved and reprocessed in the future.  By vitrifying and only disposing of the true wastes, it can be buried in a deep storage repository that is very small.

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste


That is basically what I was thinking, the article seemed alarmist and had the feel of a one sided politically motivated story.  It surprised me though as it appeared in a local paper here in Pasadena, Ca a usually fairly conservative paper.

Thanks for the link, had good information on the actual storage methods.


RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

Most "newspapers" (and almost all the AP/Reuters/UPI/ABCNNBCBS news agencies) today do little more than reprint the latest "unbiased" press release they receive from any available agitating group with an anti-technology agenda.  

Biased and thoroughly inaccurate language like "spent fuel igniting" is directly copied from the press release - never researched or checked by the "reporter" herself.

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

1. NRC just announced it may double the time that dry storage may remain onsite, from 20 yrs to 40 yrs. This suggests the technical, economic, and political issues of dealing with the waste are being  pushed 2 more generations into the future. Rather than spend $1 trillion USD in stimulus money by propping up investment firms ( that had supported the "Hope" campaign) , maybe a wiser approach would be to invest some of it in an area that would show benefits for the next 40,000 yrs.

2. reprocessing has had serious issues in the past, and we seem to be losing our memory of those issues as time goes by. Carter did not stop reprocessing on a whim. Both the US reprocessing of the 1970's and also Sellafield reprocessing have had major issues, and I'm sure only  a fraction have been made public. The so called French success , in the public eye, might be  due to the fact that issues with the french nuclear program cannot be made public- so who knows what has happened but has not yet been revealed to the public.

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

I'd like to remind everyone that this is supposed to be a forum for work-related questions.

Patricia Lougheed


Please see FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies for tips on how to make the best use of the Eng-Tips Forums.

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste


My apologies if this thread is not within the intended scope of the forum. I was simply trying to reap the benefits of the collective expertise available from these fora.  I believe that any subject that addresses political and media misinformation or veiled attacks on any industry or technology is vital to the well being of any of the branches of engineering and therefore by extension is work-related.

We as engineers are often accused of plowing ahead to do something just because we can, and not considering the consequences.  It is difficult to counter that argument if we do not fully understand what said consequences might be and what alleged consequences are simply bad information.

Since I am in the electrical field, I posted this question as a way of expanding my understanding of a very important and sensitive techno-political issue that is not going to go away.  With the need for nuclear power production increasing for the forseeable future, this will become an issue that will impact many engineering disciplines directly or indirectly.

I have recieved the information I was seeking from some of the members, if you feel that the post was inappropriate, then again my apologies and you can red flag it.


RE: North Carolina nuclear waste


I appreciate your response.

Unfortunately, there have been more than a few posts in this forum that have devolved into strongly held opinions rather than facts.  My post was aimed at reminding folks that this forum isn't the place to air opinions.  There are a couple forums on Eng-Tips where opinions are tolerated (such as "Where is Engineering Going...")and a debate about pros and cons of onsite storage, safety thereof, quality of newspapers, and best use of stimulus funds would be better suited there then here.


Patricia Lougheed


Please see FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies for tips on how to make the best use of the Eng-Tips Forums.

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

But, at the same time, not withstanding any " point of view  rhetoric " some good facts and concerns regarding fuel reprocessing were brought out.


RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

"the danger of the fuel rods igniting is raised that would cause contamination for thousands of square miles...I am not familiar with that publication, but am curious to know if anyone actually in the industry is aware of this concern."

" Everyone in the industry is aware of this and it is not a concern."

Of course it is a concern.  It is a concern that is addressed through design of the pools and their cooling systems.  Spent fuel pool cooling is evaluated considering loss of electrical power and potential single failures.

By the way, the notion that fuel rods could ignite is not so far fetched.  Anyone 50 years or older has probably seen zirconium burn - the metal filaments in the old photo flash bulbs was zirconium wire.  Such a fire in a fuel pool is prevented by designing the pool to prevent a loss of water inventory in the pool to the extent that the fuel becomes uncovered.

We, as an industry are not doing ourselves a favor when we say "not a concern" when what we really mean is, "we have considered this and designed to prevent it."

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

well said gmax137!

As you say, reasonably foreseeable scenarios leading to fuel melt are precluded by design.

I think if the public realised the amount of effort which is expended to ensure that nuclear sites are "safe" they might take greater comfort and be less perturbed by scaremongering.

I'm not suggesting we do anything less but basically because of what we do to assure ourselves that we are operating safely nobody (worker or public) is harmed. Obviously the term "harm" is open to debate but i'm talking about deterministic consequences or death rather than stochastic effects.

Putting some perspective on it - people happily drive in opposite directions at 60mph (single carriageway speed limit in the UK) with only a painted line as a 'safeguard' and the notion that the person driving in the opposite direction is licensed and not tired / under the influence of alcohol etc. About 2500 people were killed in road accidents since the beginning of the year but you don't see many people taking government to task about it...deep sigh!

Anyway, didn't mean to start ranting, star for you though!

Regards, HM

No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary - William of Occam

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

Good points gmax137.  I guess I should have been more specific that keeping fuel rods cool is a big concern and much effort goes into this.  However, a zircaloy fuel rod "igniting" is not a plausible scenario.  Melting, maybe in a worst-case accident, but not igniting.  

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

SECY-08-0036 (available on the NRC website:


) provides a pretty detailed summary of the SFP zirconium fire issue, with a number of citations to further documents.  It also addresses the issue in the context of the Shearon Harris plant (which is how the OP got to the subject in the first place).  I recommend anyone interested in this thread read the SECY letter.  This provides a good deal of background supporting jpankask's contention above that the fire scenario is "implausible."  The unfortunate thing is, the real basis is apparently documented in Sandia reports that are (?) classified as safeguards or security info and they aren't generally available.  (At least I cant find them.)

In a way that's really too bad, because it puts the NRC in the position where they are saying "we have looked into this and it is OK, trust us..."  This is unfortunate, keeping in mind that the SECY is resolving a couple of petitions opposed to the Shearon Harris high density SFP -


RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

Reference for later.

I too, cannot accept "igniting" as a plausible result of overheating.    

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

"I too, cannot accept 'igniting' as a plausible result of overheating."

Why is that?  Zirconium fires during machining operations are a well known and observed phenomenon.  Please note, I'm not disagreeing, I'm just of the opinion that someone saying "I don't think so" is pretty worthless.  And yes, I see that this post of mine fails on the same basis.  Let's discuss facts here.

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste

Sorry about my last post - it reads more harsh than I meant it to.

RE: North Carolina nuclear waste


It seems that this subject as well as the overarching subject of the media and public's perceived realities rather than those which actually exist and are known to those directly involved in the field bring out the type of almost visceral reaction in many.  It is not necessarily a bad thing to be emotionally connected to what we do as a profession.  I think many engineers in many fields have a personal stake in what we do.  It is that personal investment that drives us to design better, more efficient, more elegant solutions than those whom are satisfied just crunching numbers and punching a time card.

I thank all of the posters whom responded to this thread, my OP was well addressed and I have learned much.  My regards and thanks to all.  I appreciate your time and those great links.


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