U.S. lawmakers have debated for decades where to put all the spent fuel generated by the nation's nuclear power plants. The dithering means that an unintended site has emerged: Illinois.
About 13 percent of America's 70,000 metric tons of the radioactive waste is stashed in pools of water or in special casks at the atomic plants in Illinois that produced it, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group. That's the most held in any state.
Across the country, atomic power plants "have become de facto major radioactive waste-management operations," Robert Alvarez, a former adviser to Energy Department secretaries during President Bill Clinton's administration, said.
With no place to send their waste, power plants in 30 states -- which generate about 20 percent of the nation's electricity -- are doubling as dumps for spent fuel that remains dangerous for thousands of years. Another four states without operating reactors store spent fuel at closed plants. It is an expensive and, according to some critics, unsafe practice for which the plants weren't designed and that may end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
"That's not a long-term solution," Everett Redmond, senior director of non-proliferation and fuel cycle policy at NEI, whose members include reactor owners Exelon Corp. of Chicago and Southern Co. of Atlanta. There's a "general obligation to society to dispose of the material," Redmond said in a phone interview.
After Illinois, which also has more reactors than any other state, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New York have the most waste temporarily stored at power plants.
Since 1998, the U.S. government has been required by law to remove nuclear waste from plants and haul it to a secure disposal site -- though it hasn't because none has been built. Congress in 1987 designated one for Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a project that President Barack Obama's administration cut funding for in 2010 at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
In the meantime, utilities and other power providers have sued the U.S. almost 80 times to recover their storage costs, winning $2 billion in judgments and settlements. Taxpayers may be forced to pay as much as $20.8 billion by 2020 as the liability grows, according to a report last year from a commission Obama created to study waste-storage options.
With as many as 70 operating reactors scheduled to close by 2050, maintenance and security costs may reach a combined $550 million annually, according to the commission. The panel's 15 members included future Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Allison Macfarlane and future Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
Since 1983, the federal government has collected money from utility customers for the Nuclear Waste Fund to help pay for the removal of waste. The fund now has more than $29 billion, though a repository has never been cleared for construction. The Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners have sued the Energy Department to stop collecting the fee, a case that is pending in federal court. A U.S. court in August ordered the NRC to resume its study of Yucca, which the agency has begun, though it says it doesn't have enough money to complete.
The U.S. "cut a deal, and they haven't honored that," leaving taxpayers and utility customers exposed to higher costs, David Wright a consultant and former NARUC president, said by phone.
Once used, radioactive fuel rods are removed from reactors and stored in cooling pools at the plants. The reactor owner can transfer the waste to steel and concrete casks once the fuel has cooled for about five years.
A dry-cask storage facility at a plant can cost as much as $20 million to build and $7 million a year to maintain, according to the industry group, and about 71 percent of the nation's spent fuel now remains in the pools.
Some environmental groups say that percentage is too high and that more of the waste should be moved to the casks, which are made by companies including Areva SA of Paris, as soon as possible.
"If the cooling water in the spent fuel pool was drained by an accident or terrorist attack, there would be a much greater chance of a dangerous fire that could spread radiation," Giselle Barry, a spokesman for Senator Edward Markey, said. Markey has been critical of safety measures at Entergy Corp.'s Pilgrim reactor, about 38 miles southeast of Boston.
When a tsunami triggered a triple-meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March 2011, the nuclear waste that was stored in dry casks was protected, according to David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project.
Still, "dry casks aren't absolutely safe," he said by phone. While the risk of sabotage is minimal during their storage at nuclear plants, it is possible, Lochbaum said. "It would be preferable if they were in Yucca Mountain or some repository."
Alvarez, the former Clinton Energy Department official who is also a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, said "dry storage is the best of the solutions we have."
It's not perfect: Utilities can't be expected to maintain dry cask storage for thousands of years while the radioactive material inside them decays, according to Thomas Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.
"You've got to repackage them every 100 years," he said in a phone interview. "Saying you're going to do that for the next half a million years is a little over the top."
Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission recommended in its report last year that the U.S. begin work on a temporary storage site.
"Regardless of what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount" that the facility could have legally held, it said.
"Moreover, these communities were never asked about, and never contemplated or consented to, the conversion of these reactor sites into indefinite long-term storage facilities," the commission said.