Idaho State Journal
Idaho State Journal

A stainless steel cask will hold the Three-Mile Island waste as it is hauled from Test Area North. Pipe fitter George Perez, left, and mechanic Brad Stanger check the cask. Journal photo by Kelton Hatch.

Three-Mile Island waste goes into dry storage

By Anne Minard
Journal Staff Writer
POCATELLO - Workers at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory are preparing to move debris from the most notorious nuclear disaster in United States history.
Since the early 1980s, waste from the 1979 reactor accident at Three-Mile Island, a Pennsylvania nuclear-powered generator, has been stored in underwater facilities at INEEL's Test Area North. Idaho has decided that the time has come to move the radioactive waste into more stable, dry facilities.
On Thursday, officials from INEEL, Bechtel BWXT-Idaho, and manufacturers of the cask that will be used to ship the materials were gathered in poker-faced groups to inspect, evaluate and prepare the facilities for the transfer.
Operators used cranes to explore the insides of concrete storage bins - each bin weighs 120 tons, is 10 feet wide, 15 feet tall and 18 feet deep. Others crawled over and under the stainless steel cask that will transfer the waste, looking for cracks and structural problems.
INEEL accepted core debris - including spent fuel and control rods, racks and metal fittings that were fused together when the TMI core melted - from the early 1980s until 1990.
There was no room in dry storage areas to store the materials, said John Walsh, a spokesman for the DOE in Idaho, so Department of Energy officials stored it in underwater facilities at Test Area North, in the northern part of the 890,000-acre site.
The 344 stainless steel canisters - each 14 inches in diameter and 12 and a half feet long - pose risks because they are highly radioactive, and the current underwater storage facilities don't meet regulatory safety requirements.
As part of a legal agreement to move many types of nuclear waste stored at the site out of the state of Idaho, all of the Three-Mile Island waste must be in dry storage by June of 2001.
The site transferred one shipment, or 12 canisters, of the waste into dry storage last year.
Walsh said 29 shipments will be required to move all of the waste. The next shipment is expected to occur near the end of May.
He described the process to transfer the fuel:
"They pull a canister out of the water, drain it, dry it, and load 12 of them into another container. It's almost like loading bullets," he said. "You drop each one into a hole and it keeps them all separated and stable."
Brad Clawson, a senior operator at the site, said the cask used to transfer the waste weighs up to 160 tons when it's full.
Once it arrives at the dry storage facility, a hydraulic ram shoves each container into storage module. Clawson said truck drivers must be accurate within 3/32 of an inch when backing the storage casks into the concrete bins.
Anne Minard covers science and the environment for the Journal. She can be reached at 239-3168 or by e-mail at