GENOA, Wis. (AP) -- A massive project to remove decades-old radioactive waste from a western Wisconsin power plant is finally under way following five years of planning.
The Dairyland Power Cooperative shut down its La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor in Genoa about 25 years ago. The plant maintained the radioactive waste in "wet storage," an expensive process that requires clean water along with electrical and mechanical systems.
Plant officials wanted to save money by sealing the waste in huge tanks. Transferring the used-up fuel into concrete-lined storage vats will take a crew of 40 people working two shifts a day for most of the summer to finish the project, following strict regulations and handling casks that weigh almost 100 tons. It will also cost as much as $45 million.
The project began last week when a 64-wheel truck began hauling the first of five casks of radioactive waste to a concrete pad between Hwy. 35 and the Mississippi River, according to a La Crosse Tribune report.
Nothing has been left to chance. Under supervision from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, officials drew up contingency plans for everything from an earthquake to a power outage.
"We don't want any surprises," project manager Don Egge said.
The plant was built in 1967 and was run for 18 years. Nuclear energy was cheap in the 1970s, but the 1980s failed to deliver the growth that utilities had projected, Dairyland CEO Bill Berg said. By 1986 it cost three times more to produce energy at that plant than at the coal plant next door.
The reactor was permanently shut down in 1987. Dairyland kept its spent fuel stored in a tank of water inside the plant, as officials waited for the federal government to take possession by 1998 in accordance with a previous contract.
But planning for dry cask storage didn't begin until 2006. Dairyland sued the government and won a $38 million award for the costs it incurred between 1998 and 2006.
While the new project is expected to cost at least $42 million, officials say it will cut the $6 million annual operating cost for the mothballed facility by roughly half.
Jeff Bryan, who taught nuclear science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said the effect of the newly stored radioactive waste should be minimal on local residents. He said the people of Genoa absorb more radiation from Dairyland's coal-fired plant than they do from the nuclear waste, and said someone living a quarter mile from the storage pad will receive a yearly dose of radiation roughly equivalent to eating five bananas.
That's small comfort to some residents.
"I don't like it, but what the hell can you do?" said Steve Pinkham, who has lived near the plant for 15 years. "Any kind of leak, we're all dead meat."
Dry cask storage has been in use for more than two decades, and about 1,300 casks are being stored at some 130 commercial nuclear plants in the nation.
"It's very robust," said Christine Lipa, who oversees spent-fuel storage for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's seven-state Midwestern region. "It's demonstrated its safety."
Information from: La Crosse Tribune