Nuclear fuel rests in peace near Fort St. Vrain

PLATTEVILLE — For nearly 20 years, spent nuclear fuel has been stored at a little-noticed concrete facility just north of the Fort St. Vrain Power Station northwest of Platteville.

Recently, the facility — called the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Facility — received approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue storing the high-level radioactive waste for another 20 years.

The ISFSF, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded around the clock by teams of machine-gun-toting security guards, will continue to serve as a spent fuel storage site until Nov. 30, 2031, or until the United States comes to terms with the thorny issue of where to permanently store its nuclear waste.

At one time, the nuclear industry pinned its hopes on storing waste at a deep underground facility in Nevada called Yucca Mountain. But environmental concerns and political wrangling have apparently pulled that option off the table for the foreseeable future.

Instead, spent nuclear waste continues to be stored on-site or near reactors in 33 states, including at Fort St. Vrain, which served as a nuclear power station from 1979 to 1989.

Fort St. Vrain, owned by Xcel Energy, was converted to a gas-fired electrical power plant in 2001. Xcel built the ISFSF to store spent nuclear fuel from Fort St. Vrain’s nuclear era but sold the $25 million facility to the U.S. Department of Energy in 1995.

Since then, the DOE has contracted with a private company — the Idaho-based Washington Group — to be the ongoing caretaker of the facility.

High security

Ted Borst, facility manager, said his 15-person staff is charged with making sure the stored fuel remains safe and secure — especially since the attacks of 9/11.

“The biggest part of our staff is security, so it doesn’t end up where it doesn’t belong,” he said. “We’re the operations staff and emergency coordinators in case something happened, like a fire or natural phenomenon.”

Jay Newkirk, facility safety officer, said the 80-foot-tall site is virtually destruction-proof, able to withstand tornadoes, earthquakes, fires or floods.

Newkirk said the facility has never been hit by a tornado in his 14 years there, although twisters have been spotted in the area. So far, though, its tornado-resistance capability has never been tested.

Inside the ISFSF, thorium and uranium fuel particles are stored in graphite containers with helium cooling tubes inside sealed chambers.The concrete walls of the facility are more than three feet thick.

Newkirk said two types of general radiation monitoring are done at the facility. Outside the facility, radiation must never exceed natural background levels, while inside it must be less than 10 percent above the legal limit for exposure.

The containment of the radiation is so tight at the facility that workers can enter it in their street clothes, Borst said.

“It’s very well protected,” he said. “The facility is very clean and we can wear our normal clothes when we go in.”

Indefinite storage?

Borst, a former Fort St. Vrain employee, has been the ISFSF manager since it opened. He said everything in the facility is from Fort St. Vrain’s nuclear days and no fuel from any other nuclear facilities has ever been stored there.

Or probably ever will.

“We do have a little extra room, but it would have to be approved by the governor,” he said.

Under the current agreement between Colorado and the federal government, the waste is supposed to leave the state by Jan. 1, 2035.

But that would only happen if there is a functioning federal repository to accept it.

“All the nuclear power plants are storing it on their sites,” Borst said. “Across the country, there’s about a couple dozen of these types of storage sites. They all accomplish the same thing — to keep it shielded and away from the people who shouldn’t have it.”

Newkirk said the facility stays on constant high alert and is well-prepared for anything.

“We run emergency response drills monthly and every two years do a full-blown evaluated exercise,” he said.

Borst said he hopes something can be done with the stored fuel because it still has power possibilities.

“Hopefully, we’ll figure out something to do with it by (2035),” he said. “My hope is to recycle it, because you only use about 10 percent of the fuel.”