Radioactive nuclear waste may be kept forever at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant after plans for a Nevada disposal site appear to have collapsed.
The local nuclear plant and 130 others had been promised a national site for the permanent disposal of nuclear waste. But President Obama wants to stop funding Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the only disposal site ever considered.
Spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants are the most highly radioactive of all nuclear wastes.
The nuclear plant operated by the Omaha Public Power District south of Blair has a 40-foot-deep pool next to the nuclear reactor for spent fuel rods after they are removed from the reactor.
Storage in the pool was to be temporary.
Nine years after OPPD opened its Fort Calhoun plant, Congress passed legislation in 1982 that obligated the federal government to accept nuclear waste for permanent disposal at a national site.
But the pool at the Fort Calhoun plant was reaching capacity. So OPPD in 2006 also began to temporarily store spent fuel rods above ground in mausoleum-like concrete structures outside the nuclear plant.
Now the power company says it could store the plant's nuclear waste on-site forever.
"Our interim storage could provide a long-term solution," OPPD spokesman Mike Jones said. "We are prepared to store safely onsite as long as necessary."
Safety measures begin by placing fuel rods from the pool into a 200-inch stainless steel canister. Two stainless steel lids are welded into place to prevent radiation leaks.
"There's really no plausible scenario that could cause the canisters to open up and leak," OPPD's nuclear projects manager at the Fort Calhoun plant, Bernard Van Sant, says confidently.
A special truck carefully transfers each canister out of the nuclear plant into the dry cask storage facility made of steel-reinforced concrete designed to withstand tornadoes and missile attacks.
The $20 million cost of dry cask storage thus far has been paid by the U.S. Department of Energy because of a June 2006 settlement to a lawsuit in which OPPD sued to recover its cost in handling nuclear waste.
Van Sant said he personally believes on-site storage here is so safe that a permanent disposal site elsewhere isn't necessary.
But OPPD still argues that the federal government is obligated under the 1982 law to take possession of nuclear waste for permanent disposal.
"When the Fort Calhoun station was designed, the pool used to store spent fuel was never intended to be a permanent storage site. The same is true for the dry cask storage facility we use. It was not designed with the intent to be a permanent solution," Jones said.
"We are prepared to safely store material on-site as long as necessary," he said. "But we still believe in a single permanent site because that is what the law calls for."
Congress still could reject the Obama administration's request to end Yucca Mountain funding when it considers the Department of Energy's budget this fall.
But Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the current Senate majority leader, has led the two-decade battle against the burial of the nation's nuclear waste in his home state.
Congress increased money for the Nevada site in 2002 during the Bush administration, but that support appears to be gone now.
"Obviously this all has an impact on Blair," said Jerry Loos, a Nebraska Energy Office spokesman.
The flipside if Yucca Mountain is abandoned as a disposal site is that radioactive nuclear waste would not be shipped on trucks and trains through Blair.
Most nuclear waste, stored temporarily now in the eastern half of the country, would have gone west.
Studies publicized by the Nebraska Energy Office have estimated that 62 percent of 49,166 truck shipments and 82 percent of 10,332 rail shipments would have traveled through Nebraska. Union Pacific was projected to carry most of the railroad shipments through Blair, as were many truckers.