Jordan Lake, a 47,000-acre recreation site just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, is a picture postcard vision of Southern hospitality: Ringed with pine trees, it's a haven for water-skiers, fishermen and sunbathers, not to mention a source of drinking water for surrounding communities. But rising out of the greenery on the lake's southern horizon is, for many, a more ominous vision: the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, its familiar silhouette topped by a plume of steam.
As early as July, if Carolina Power and Light (CP&L) and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission have their way, the plant could be on a trajectory to becoming the nation's largest high-level nuclear waste site. That's if the NRC approves an operating license amendment doubling the number of spent fuel pools in use from two to four. Each pool, forty feet deep and constructed of reinforced concrete six feet thick, would store the fiercely hot and lethally radioactive byproducts of nuclear power generation at the Harris plant as well as at two others owned by CP&L.
The spent-fuel assemblies, unless put into "dry cask" storage (not currently an option at Harris) or kept in pools of deep, circulating water, will ignite if exposed to air. And that possibility is fueling fears of a worst-case scenario: a fire in all four pools that could release as much as 790 kilograms of radioactive cesium-137 into the environment (the disaster at Chernobyl released only twenty-seven kilograms). An act of terrorism, sabotage or simple water loss might trigger such an accident, which could kill tens of thousands of people and render an area the size of North Carolina uninhabitable--for centuries.
In fact, critics contend that a waste pool accident at Harris could pose a more dire threat than a meltdown of the reactor core itself, which is better fortified against attack and more capable of preventing radioactive material from escaping into the environment. While there are about 150 fuel assemblies inside the reactor at any given time, the two waste pools currently in use can hold more than 3,600. Opening two additional pools could eventually raise that number to more than 8,000. Though less radioactive than they are inside the reactor, the spent-fuel assemblies, by their sheer numbers and close proximity, could escalate virtually any problem into a major crisis.
"When you couple that possibility with the ineffectiveness of the NRC as a watchdog agency," says Durham activist Jim Warren, executive director of the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN), "an agency that has consistently, over many years, gone along with what the nuclear industry has wanted to do, it's an extremely dangerous situation."
How North Carolina finds itself in the hot seat is a testament to years of pro-business policy-making in Washington that has whittled away at nuclear safety enforcement. Even internal critics like Capt. David Orrik, manager of the NRC's Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation program (OSRE), feel that the relationship between the NRC staff and the nuclear industry has become a revolving door. "Remember Eisenhower's saying about the military-industrial complex? Well, here it's the NRC-industrial complex," he says. "A lot of our upper management and commissioners have gone on to jobs in the nuclear industry. And I think some of them are much more attuned to the health and feeding of the industry than they are to public health and welfare."
CP&L originally planned to construct four reactor units on the Harris site in the early 1970s. But in the wake of public outrage following the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, only one managed to get built--becoming operational in 1987--along with four spent-fuel pools, two of which were approved for use.
In 1989, with no federal waste site available, CP&L began to ship spent-fuel assemblies from its sister plants--the Brunswick …