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4. Nuclear Waste Pools in North Carolina

CounterPunch, August 9, 2008
Title: “Pools of Fire”
Author: Jeffrey St. Clair

Student Researchers: Krisden Kidd and Karene Schelert
Faculty Evaluator: Heidi LaMoreaux, PhD
Sonoma State University

One of the most lethal patches of ground in North America is located in the backwoods of North Carolina, where Shearon Harris nuclear plant is housed and owned by Progress Energy. The plant contains the largest radioactive waste storage pools in the country. It is not just a nuclear-power-generating station, but also a repository for highly radioactive spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants. The spent fuel rods are transported by rail and stored in four densely packed pools filled with circulating cold water to keep the waste from heating. The Department of Homeland Security has marked Shearon Harris as one of the most vulnerable terrorist targets in the nation.

The threat exists, however, without the speculation of terrorist attack. Should the cooling system malfunction, the resulting fire would be virtually unquenchable and could trigger a nuclear meltdown, putting more than two hundred million residents of this rapidly growing section of North Carolina in extreme peril. A recent study by Brookhaven Labs estimates that a pool fire could cause 140,000 cancers, contaminate thousands of square miles of land, and cause over $500 billion in off-site property damage.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has estimated that there is a 1:100 chance of pool fire happening under the best of scenarios. And the dossier on the Shearon Harris plant is far from the best.
In 1999 the plant experienced four emergency shutdowns. A few months later, in April 2000, the plant’s safety monitoring system, designed to provide early warning of a serious emergency, failed. And it wasn’t the first time. Indeed, the emergency warning system at Shearon Harris has failed fifteen times since the plant opened in 1987.

In 2002 the NRC put the plant on notice for nine unresolved safety issues detected during a fire prevention inspection by NRC investigators. When the NRC returned to the plant a few months later for reinspection, it determined that the corrective actions were “not acceptable.” Between January and July of 2002, Harris plant managers were forced to manually shut down the reactors four times.
The problems continue with chilling regularity. In the spring of 2003 there were four emergency shutdowns of the plant, including three over a four-day period. One of the incidents occurred when the reactor core failed to cool down during a refueling operation while the reactor dome was off of the plant—a potentially catastrophic series of circumstances.

Between 1999 and 2003, there were twelve major problems requiring the shutdown of the plant. According to the NRC, the national average for commercial reactors is one shutdown per eighteen months.
Congressman David Price of North Carolina sent the NRC a report by scientists at MIT and Princeton that pinpointed the waste pools as the biggest risk at the plant. “Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly and catch fire,” wrote Bob Alvarez, a former advisor to the Department of Energy and co-author of the report. “The fire could well spread to older fuel. The long-term land contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than Chernobyl.”

The study recommended relatively inexpensive fixes, which would have cost Progress approximately $5 million a year—less than the $6.6 million annual bonus for Progress CEO Warren Cavanaugh.
Progress scoffed at the idea and recruited the help of NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan to smear the MIT/Princeton report. McGaffigan is a nuclear enthusiast who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats. A veteran of the National Security Council in the Reagan administration, McGaffigan took a special interest in promoting nuclear plants to US client states. He served two terms as NRC Commissioner under Clinton as a tireless proponent of nuclear plant construction and deregulation, and consistently dismissed the risks associated with the transport and storage of nuclear waste.
McGaffigan’s meddling has outraged many anti-nuclear activists. Lewis Pitts, an environmental attorney in North Carolina says, “The NRC has directed the production of a bogus study to deny decades of science on the perils of pool fires.”

Author Jeffrey St. Clair concludes, “If the worst happens, the blame will reside in Washington, which has permitted the Shearon Harris facility to become a nuclear time bomb.”

  • Elliot Gauthier June 10, 2010

    Why? Why do people destroy?

    • John Ess February 4, 2014

      Because we want to destroy everything

  • LJ Miehe June 14, 2010

    1 in 100 chances are not remote enough for me. This looks to be a major accident waiting to happened. After what is happening in the gulf with BP, this would be a fatal blow to our current energy policy if a tragic event like a nuclear fire happened. We need to get on top of this and not let companies that provide such critical services and catastrophic consequences if something goes wrong, tell our agencies what safety measures are adequate. This is not a gift shop we are talking about.

  • Zach July 9, 2010

    I think that this article should be revised. Since when do two hundred million people inhabit the backwoods of N.C.?

  • Mr. T July 25, 2010

    Zach, you better do your research before posting YOUR information. There are 1.74 million people that live in the Raleigh, Cary, and Durham areas, all within 15 to 40 miles from the Shearon Harris nuclear facility. This does not include the numerous small towns and communities in between. So the estimated 200 million is correct, if you take into consideration the outlying areas. By the way…do you happen to be employed by, or associated with the government or the NRC? Dissemination can be powerful when adding rhetoric or other forms of persuasiveness. Remember the quote from George Washington “”Government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force. And force, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” People need to know what the government and the NRC are doing. Look up some of the incredible atrocities that were conducted by both the NRC and the government, concerning nuclear testing on American citizens back in the late 40’s through the early 60’s. Pregnant mothers, children, military personnel, mentally handicapped were all injected, feed, irradiated with various forms of radioactive isotopes in order to see the outcome on human test subjects, some aware, some not aware. It is about time someone to speak out to protect the American citizens from its so called protectors (the government).

  • HolyDiver42 July 28, 2010

    Mr. T, YOU should do research first before jumping on somebody. Zach had a valid point- there are only about 300 million people in the United States, and 2/3 people DON”T live in North Carolina. The information is wrong, as it is not possible to have 2/3 the US population in North Carolina.

  • double glazing leeds July 31, 2010

    ahh so sad !

  • Double Glazing Leeds July 31, 2010

    ahh its ridicolous

  • double glazing leeds August 1, 2010

    Like this information !

  • Method5150 August 1, 2010

    Mr. T: N.C. total population is approx 9 million covering about 52,000 square miles. The 200 million is an over estimate.. but if you think of the national consequence of a nuclear meltdown of Shearon Harris, it should effect each and every U.S. (North American) citizen. This “fire pool” would be catastrophic to the local and surrounding environment for many years to come. Research Chernobyl and consider those long term ramifications. It is disgusting what we are doing to our environment. That 6+ million dollar bonus (which seems unbelievable in comparison to my meager wages!! ) would be better used by updating the facility… yet it ends up in homeboys pocket. It always comes down to one thing.. Greed!

  • MILee August 9, 2010

    While the figures of who would be affected-2,20 or 200 million-the point is that ANYone would be. Remember, corporations who have the rights of people are NOT people, so have no consciences or ethics. They simply don’t care about anything but profit.

  • Mark Goldes August 9, 2010

    New technology appears to make it possible to use the waste to power modified diesel engines to produce electricity at lower cost that the nuclear plant itself.

    The waste will not have to be moved off-site.

    There are no weapons overtones.

    A nuclear plant uses only 5% of the energy in the fuel rods before it considers them waste and puts them in storage pools.

    The remaining 95% is expected to be usable to power this breakthrough technology, gradually making it less hazardous.

    It needs to be prototyped.

    It can end any need to consider building new nuclear or coal burning power plants.

  • Josh August 14, 2010

    I think the author may have gotten a little carried away with his rhetoric. Unless the NRC commissioner is taking bribes (which seems to be implied without any offer of proof) what is the story here? That government officials are working to make a toxic dump safer?

    Also I find “pools” to be a poor word choice since the waste is solid metal bars in sealed containers, not liquid ooze sitting around in holes in the ground.

  • louiev70 August 18, 2010

    seems to me after reading everything befor the comment section , it’s a man made N bomb just waiting to be set off at the so called rite time to do so??? just an opinion that popped into my head after finishing and thinking about it. nothings being done to fix it and the cover up’s. things like that always lead to a man made disaster to accour when its time to take acction on something. like 9/11. but all my opinions is all’ havea nice one and ty for the read.

  • Leah August 19, 2010

    To Josh, if you actually read the whole thing it would tell you that, yes they are metal rods, but they are put into pools of cold moving water so they do not heat up and catch fire.”The spent fuel rods are transported by rail and stored in four densely packed pools filled with circulating cold water to keep the waste from heating” Also, obviously they are NOT working to make it safer. The NRC keeps telling this place that they are not safe enough, they come back to check on the plant and NOTHING was done to improve the hazards. How is that working to fix it and why have they not shut this place down? Since the plant opened in 1987 the warning system has failed 15 times, so in 23 years the alarm stopped working 15 times….that isn’t counting the times it DID work. Look at the facts, the plant is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Granted it seems the author over-exaggerated the amount of people in N.C. but like Method and MILee said, no matter what the number is, the fact that anyone would be affected is awful. The long term affects of the pools catching fire are hard to think about and rather terrifying.

  • Thomas Hammond August 20, 2010

    I just looked up the original article at CounterPunch. The number should be two million not two hundred million as shown above. This article has been condensed from the original and someone has typed the wrong number.

  • TSFMaster August 24, 2010

    This is why we need breeder reactors.

  • TSFMaster August 24, 2010

    And I’d like to point out that the NRC’s job is to be pessimistic, and that all nuclear regulations are at least ten times as strict as they need to be.

  • FactChecker September 6, 2010

    Re: 200 million
    The original article at says:
    “An uncontrolled pool fire and meltdown at Shearon Harris would put more than two million residents of this rapidly growing section of North Carolina in extreme peril.”
    Two million, not two hundred million.

  • Mickey Huff September 6, 2010

    The no. 200 million is an error that was to be corrected last year. It is 2 million. It was an error. Our new webmaster is now correcting it.

  • admin September 6, 2010

    Corrected…thank you.

  • marcos September 8, 2010

    me parece muy buena la informacion, y creo que todos deberiamos entender el contenido principal y el mensaje de ALERTA que hay en él, no me parece que lo más importante sea determinar cuantas personas viven en el área, la región o la zona, si dejan de lado el error en la cifra y se lee el resto leerán entonces lo importante de la nota,

  • marcos September 8, 2010

    esscribi en español y la traduccion es espantosa

  • Funny Shit September 17, 2010

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  • harry johnson September 27, 2010

    This is frightening. My experience in dealing with North Carolina factories is that the people there are not careful in what they do. They have good intentions but manage to screw things up a lot. There is no room for carelessness and error in this. Business has only moved there to break unions and cut wages. Most have regretted it because the work ethic and care is not present in the South.

  • jamesofthecommons October 13, 2010

    Disastors,murder,slavery,genocide and other evils will continue to plauge humanity for as long as we continue to allow the means of production to remain in the hands of an elite few.
    The common man exists in our time for the sake of the economy;while the economy of our time exists for the elite. Sadly,few Americans seem to discern the dangers of this reality.

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  • JJ CORBETT March 23, 2011


  • Paul Panza March 25, 2011

    During the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, a 90% infant mortality spike occurred at McGee Hospital in Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania due to the plume release. There is no known safe dose level of radiation, if you live within 300 miles of a nuclear plant you are exposed to constant bombardment that may cause you harm or exacerbate present medical conditions. The human body is capable of selective uptake when talking of mineral absorption; this means if you can eat organic, non-contaminated fresh fruit and vegetables your body will change out the radioactive minerals for the safer ones. People who live around the Shippingport Nuclear Facility, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania have been told not to eat from their gardens as they are not safe. This valley has the longest exposure to low-level, mid and high levels than any other group of people on the planet. So much corruption surrounds the nuclear fuel cycle, the Vital Statistic Records of our state were altered to cover up the the disease and death caused by the exposure to so called safe levels of radiation. The reason that these electrical generating facilities exist is to make weapons grade plutonium (WMDs), they are part of the military corporate complex, this is how the US military kills it own people.

    It’s been 25 years since Chernobyl fallout contaminated flora and fauna in Europe, but German hunting officials are still dealing with rising numbers of radioactive wild boars. But why?
    This burgeoning boar population munches on radiation-absorbing truffles and mushrooms, and because of an overall increase in wild boars, the number of radioactive boars has gone up as well. The German Atomic Energy Law requires Berlin to reimburse hunters who bag radioactive boars. In 2009, the government paid out approximately €425,000 — or $555,000 — for polluted piggies. According to Der Spiegel, the contaminated boar population has been the most problematic in southern Germany:

    Many of the boar that are killed land on the plates of diners across Germany, but it is forbidden to sell meat containing high levels of radioactive caesium-137 — any animals showing contamination levels higher than 600 becquerel per kilogram must be disposed of. But in some areas of Germany, particularly in the south, wild boar routinely show much higher levels of contamination. According to the Environment Ministry, the average contamination for boar shot in Bayerischer Wald, a forested region on the Bavarian border with the Czech Republic, was 7,000 becquerel per kilogram. Other regions in southern Germany aren’t much better.

  • Anne Cere March 29, 2011

    I would be interested by an update on the subject, now that Japan is dealing with contamination from nuclear waste in a cooling storage pool that’s not cooling anymore. Are we any safer from Shearon-Harris yet?

  • Craig Arnold March 31, 2011

    I reside within site of the Shearon-Harris plant. My family and I moved into the area 3 years ago. I googled this article because I just heard an announcement on my local news channel that they will braidcast a news story about the waste dump tomorrow at 6PM. I never knew that the waste dump existed before I heard that. Luckily, we are just renting and are not tied to a mortgage. We were contemplating on moving from the area. Now that I have discovered the news about about having the largest and potenially most deadly nuclear waste dump in the country, I will definitely move far away from here. I strongly feel that residence should be made aware of these things possibly through news letters enclosed in their power bill statements.

  • Kyle June 15, 2011

    Don’t compare any nuclear power plant to Japan or Chernobyl. For something like what happened in Japan to happen here, an earthquake of similar magnitude would have to occur and, simultaneously, a hurricane would have to rip through and finish the job (I don’t think we get Tsunami’s). Nuclear power is inherently safe, clean, and probably the most regulated industry in the United States.

    • John Buck July 19, 2011

      Dear Kyle do you have an answer for the 40,000 year half life of the waste?

      • wolfie October 30, 2013

        Dont forget… 40,000 (+) years of half life for a material stored in a container likely to disintegrate and leak within a century… Do you see a difference by several orders of magnitude here? I do.

  • John Buck July 19, 2011

    Dear Kyle do you have an answer for the 40,000 year half life of the waste?

  • Pepper August 25, 2011

    The Shearon Harris facility is very close to a resevoir and a river.  I’m not positive the threat of contamination has been fully calculated

  • Pepper August 25, 2011

    The Shearon Harris facility is very close to a resevoir and a river.  I’m not positive the threat of contamination has been fully calculated

  • Weed Wacker September 19, 2011

    Wow we haven’t moved much on the
    Nuclear Waste issue have we?

    • Baby Samples September 23, 2011

      I agree … Just take a look at the news. Nuclear waste issues caused by earthquakes and explosions nearly every month!

  • Weed Wacker September 19, 2011

    Wow we haven’t moved much on the
    Nuclear Waste issue have we?

    • Baby Samples September 23, 2011

      I agree … Just take a look at the news. Nuclear waste issues caused by earthquakes and explosions nearly every month!

  • Rift Leveling Guide October 9, 2011

    It’s in human nature to become corrupt over time when given power over other people.

  • Sell Handmade Jewelry October 10, 2011

    Wasn’t that funny.

  • AndyLiu0123 March 17, 2012

     It’s a good stage!

  • christian louboutin October 17, 2012

    north carolina ……..

  • christian louboutin October 17, 2012

    north carolina ……..

  • Jay Ligon November 11, 2013

    Just wondering where the “back woods” are located, because I’m in North Carolina near actual woods. Are backwoods different from woods, and are they near us?

  • Larry Butler January 19, 2014

    With so little danger and no radiation escaping any nuclear plant that hasn’t melted down, yet, Mr McGaffigan and his staff won’t mind moving their families and offices to the site of the most troublesome reactor in the country….you know…where the REST of us live downwind of the meltdown.

    If he objects or refuses, obviously he’d be a liar….right?
    Shut them down…They are all way too dangerous for greedy corporations run by profits, not safety, to own.

    To shut them down is easy. Simply remove the government’s promises that if something bad happens the taxpayers will pay for it, not the corporation. Nobody will be blamed. No insurance company will touch a nuclear plant liability policy.

  • JENNIFER CORBETT January 26, 2014

    So why is the plant shut down this past week….????

  • truffie February 4, 2014

    Truffie dog says this is good

    • Ahmad Ahmad February 4, 2014

      i agree with truffies statement