Missouri Coalition for the Environment raises concerns about the Ameren Callaway Nuclear Plant

Jun 3, 2014

The Callaway nuclear reactor
The Callaway nuclear reactor
Credit Bridgit Bowden / KBIA

  Ameren’s Callaway nuclear plant near Fulton is in its 30th year of operation. It has a 40-year license and is in the process of getting it renewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC.

Missouri Coalition for the Environment is heading an effort to stop it from being re-licensed.

One of their main concerns is spent, or used, radioactive rods that are left over after making power. When they’re taken out of the reactor, they’re still extremely hot and need to be stored in a cooling facility.

At the Callaway plant, they use a cooling pool. It’s basically a large pool of water where they store a little more than 1,700 spent fuel rods. That’s all of them for the last 30 years, because there is no plan for permanently storing spent fuel rods in the US. The NRC is set to release a long-term plan this fall.

Sarah Kovaleski is the director of design engineering at the Callaway plant. Her department makes sure the plant matches up exactly with its designs and licenses.

She says the relicensing process started in 2011. Since then, the NRC has sent about 100 employees to the Callaway plant to perform on-site audits. They look at how the plant is aging and then make recommendations about the plant’s future.

But the NRC isn’t issuing new or renewed licenses until it decides on what to do with spent fuel waste. "And, once that’s addressed, the NRC will be able to issue new licenses and Callaway, we expect, will be towards the front of that line. So if all the schedules work out the way they appear to, then we should have a renewed license at the end of 2014," she said. 

But some Missourians aren’t happy with the re-licensing. Ed Smith is the safe energy director with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Back in February, the Coalition along wit 33 other organizations from all around the country with signed a petition asking the NRC to stop issuing reactor licenses.

"The federal government would realize that it has a high level nuclear waste problem and it doesn’t have an answer. So, ideally we would like to see nuclear reactors shut down until long-term storage is available. Realistically, we don’t think the NRC ought to give Ameren a license extension until there’s a real plan on how it’s going to manage the spent fuel in its fuel pools currently," he said. 

He says his organization is concerned because of an NRC report showed that that a nuclear reactor pool fire could render more than 9,000 square miles uninhabitable . His worry is that a natural disaster like a tornado or earthquake could cause a fire.

At the Callaway plant, Sarah Kovaleski says the NRC has deemed that the spent fuel pool is safe. "The spent fuel that’s in our spent fuel pool is within our design, it’s in a safe configuration and it’s not something that causes us concern in license renewal space," she said. 

Kovaleski didn’t have answers to all my questions. And about 2 weeks after I spoke with her, a received a written statement from an Ameren spokesperson. He said “There is no risk to the Callaway spent fuel pool. The Callaway spent fuel pool and building has been evaluated for seismic and natural events. The spent fuel is safely stored with no risk to the public.”

But there is another way to store spent fuel, which is generally considered safer than cooling pools. Dry cask storage basically consists of large concrete entombments where the spent fuel rods are cooled by ambient air.

Larry Criscione is a risk and reliability engineer at the NRC, and used to be a shift engineer and senior reactor operator at the Callaway plant. He says moving spent fuel assemblies into dry cask storage is the best solution. "Whatever fuel can safely be moved into dry cask, I think we ought to start doing that. I mean, it has to be done at some point. So as long as there’s really no savings and dose to delaying I think the industry should be moving forward into putting the fuel into dry cask," he said. 

The Coalition would like to know if Ameren has a plan to move the spent fuel assemblies into dry cask. "Our concern here is that we haven’t seen written plans from Ameren about what they’re going to do or when they’re going to move their spent fuel assemblies to dry cask storage. The reason that’s a concern for us is because the federal government is on the cusp of issuing a 20 year license extension for the operation of the nuclear reactor," Smith said. 

A representative from Ameren told KBIA in a written statement that the plant has submitted a request for dry cask storage to the NRC. The timeline for moving the spent fuel to dry cask is 2015.