You Asked, We Answered: What is the status of nuclear waste storage at Shearon Harris power plant?

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This week, we’re heading to the power plant off of Shearon Harris Road, and it’s all thanks to Our Chatham subscriber Billy Cummings. He asked, “What is status of nuclear waste storage at Shearon Harris? How effective are local emergency management plans?”

Shearon Harris power plant. (Chloe Arrojado/Our Chatham)

What is Nuclear Waste, Anyways?

Nuclear waste, also known as radioactive waste, refers to the radioactive leftovers of a nuclear reaction.

Nuclear energy produces energy through a process called nuclear fission. In the process, neutrons breakuraniumatomsapart. Breaking these uranium atoms creates enough energy to turn water into steam. The steam is able to power aturbine, which is connected to a generator that produces electrical energy.

Power plants deal with nuclear waste according to federal standards set by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and they have procedures depending on their two categories of waste: high-level waste and low-level waste.

Low-level radioactive waste refers to material that has become radioactive after exposure to radioactive reactions. This waste includes clothing, equipment and cleaning supplies that have been exposed to radiation. Low-level waste is usually found in places that range from hospitals to nuclear power plants.

High-level waste refers to the uranium material that nuclear reactors use as fuel. This category of waste is almost exclusively found in nuclear power plants, as they occur as a result of the nuclear fission process.

According to the 2017 U.S. report for the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, there are 1,575 metric tons of spent fuel at the Shearon Harris location – the largest amount of spent fuel among the nuclear waste storage sites in North Carolina. Others include the power plants in Brunswick County and Mecklenburg County in addition to the Harris power plant.

What are the local emergency plans?

If there was an emergency at the Harris nuclear plant, Duke Energy would contact local, state and federal authorities. These authorities have the power to activate sirens within the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone around the nuclear plant.

Harris Nuclear Plant representative Michele Burton says that the emergency plans develop as a joint effort.

“When we plan for emergencies, we work with the counties that are within our zone,” she said. “So, Wake County emergency management, Lee County, Chatham County emergency management. We work collaboratively with them to plan for emergencies.”

You can check if you live in an Emergency Planning Zone here.

What comes next depends on the situation. There are a number of different actions that authorities could advise – including going inside, finding shelter and evacuation. All of the Harris Nuclear Plant’s emergency preparedness information is compiled in an annual document.

In addition, Burton says that, every two years, the power plant practices their response plans in a federally graded exercise. This exercise is part of a requirement standard set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“We respond to this drill like it was an actual emergency,” Burton said. The Harris power plant hosted their last drill on April 30.

Associate Professor Igor Bolotnov specializes in nuclear engineering at NC State. He is close with the Harris power plant as he lives about five miles from the plant. He says that after the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the United States gained insight into improvements that could be made in its own power plants.

“[Fukushima] was one of the major lessons in the U.S., in the sense of what would be the response time if there was a natural disaster,” Bolotnov said.

As a result, Bolotnov said the United States spent millions per power plant to improve emergency structures to make them more effective. All of the post-Fukushima recommendations and regulations made by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission can be found here.

In terms of effectiveness of local emergency plans, Bolotnov says he feels safe living near the power plant.

“When I ask them this question, the answer is always ‘It’s unlikely something will happen,’” Bolotnov said. “But if it does happen, then it will cover much of the area. So, no matter where you are.”

Nuclear Waste Complications

Nuclear waste is an issue that will take a long time to fix. Some waste, like Plutonium-239, for example, will take thousands of years before it loses just half of its radioactivity.

Because nuclear waste is a long-term problem that will span multiple generations, finding a permanent solution has been tricky.

In 2002, Congress built off of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and proposed that the U.S. use Yucca Mountain to permanently hold nuclear waste in the United States. But opposition from politicians, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, have prevented development.

Until plans move forward for a permanent repository, the Harris Nuclear Plant’s waste will sit on-site, at the bottom of a pool that’s 40-feet deep.

For question-asker Billy Cummings, the first step to solving the problem is moving away from nuclear energy.

“First, we need to stop producing nuclear waste because…we don’t have any viable solution for it,” Cummings said.

Question asker Billy Cummings. (Chloe Arrojado/Our Chatham)

The issue of nuclear waste will become more prominent as long as we keep using the energy source. And it doesn’t look like we’re going to stop anytime soon. In 2017, North Carolina used nuclear energy to generate around one-third of its electricity.

Even with efforts to lessen risk against nuclear waste, Cummings isn’t satisfied.

“A lot of these solutions are shortsighted, right?” Cummings said. “I mean, they’re just expedient—people taking the easy way. We have to really get serious about the best ways to manage what we have.”

Have more questions about nuclear waste in Chatham County? We base our journalism on reader questions, so send them our way if you would like to inspire further reporting!

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