ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The nuclear reactor in Clinton, Illinois, provides nearly a million kilowatts of power to central Illinois. It came online in 1982 when nuclear power was growing rapidly. But that changed, and there hasn't been a new nuclear reactor in this country in the last 26 years.
Now Clinton is one of three sites across the country applying for an early site permit, the first step in building a new reactor. Marilyn Kray is vice president of project development for Exelon, the utility company that shares the ownership of the Clinton facility with British Nuclear.
MARILYN KRAY: Our strategy at Exelon is based on taking action now to preserve the option for the future because should there be a need, the nuclear has so much lead time associated with it that you need to take that action now to have that option available to you in the future.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Most in the small town of Clinton say they welcome the economic boom that another reactor would bring. The town's director of economic development, Steve Vandiver, says a new reactor would bring many benefits.
STEVE VANDIVER: Speaking economic development-wise, I would love to see the reactor being built just for the fact of the workers it brings to the town and the families it brings to town and what it can do for our community.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Even though it would be eight to ten years before a new reactor could be built, the first permit application has sparked protest as well as praise.
SANDRA LINDBERG: Our concerns were not addressed substantively in any way at all.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sandra Lindberg, a theatre professor at Illinois Weslyan University in nearby Bloomington, founded No New Nukes to oppose the new reactor proposal.
SANDRA LINDBERG: There are multiple reasons, both health, economic and design building a new reactor would be a big problem for our community.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: No New Nukes supporter Angelo Capparella says his biggest concern about a second reactor is what to do with the nuclear waste.
ANGELO CAPPARELLA: Everybody knows, in the industry and out, that you're producing incredibly, highly radioactive waste that's going to be toxic for as long as civilization has been in existence. And we don't think that's a problem? It just baffles me that we want to actually dig ourselves deeper into this hole, producing waste that we really don't know what to do about.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Exelon's Kray says used nuclear fuel is one of the industry's most challenging issues.
MARILYN KRAY: The theory, what was supposed to have happened based on the Nuclear Waste Policy Act back in early 1980s, was that the spent fuel that comes from the reactors was supposed to then be taken by the Department of Energy, who was authorized to design and build and operate a deep mine repository. Yucca Mountain is the site that was chosen out in the Nevada desert. That has not -- has not happened.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Critics and proponents of the Yucca Mountain storage site say it will be years, if ever, before Yucca Mountain is operational. Meanwhile, most used fuel rods are stored in spent fuel pools like this one at Clinton. When pools at nuclear plants across the country began filling up, the nuclear industry began looking at transferring the spent fuel rods to dry storage casks.
Exelon's Dresden nuclear plant in north central Illinois uses dry storage casks for its nuclear waste. In a 2001 interview, the casks safety was underscored by Exelon's Preston Swafford.
PRESTON SWAFFORD: I believe it's very safe. Yes, I do. Currently, as you can see -- we're this close to it. We could actually walk right up and touch the canister and have no affect. There's very little radiation emitted off this because of the design and the structure of significant amount of concrete, morated material and the ability to really absorb and shield any radioactive material that's inside that canister.
OSCAR SHIRANI: It's not that I am anti-nuclear because I am pro-nuclear but pro-safe nuclear.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Oscar Shirani, a former Exelon engineer and auditor-turned-whistleblower, says an audit he did in 2000 found serious design problem with the dry storage casks.
In a speech sponsored by No New Nukes at Illinois Weslyan, Shirani said he tried to stop production of dry casks designed by the Holtec Company and manufactured by U.S. Tool & Die.
OSCAR SHIRANI: The cask could fail at any moment, not only in terms of the material flaw, weld flaw, design flaw, and also the neutron shielding material, which is outside. Remember, you cannot wait for the material to break. You cannot wait until you see millions of people running for their lives within hundreds of miles. That is most dangerous to know what's unknown. We have to know that these plants are operating safely.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Dresden nuclear plant was under pressure to start loading its Holtec casks when Shirani's audit came out on Aug. 4, 2000. The audit resulted in nine findings: including welding flaws and inadequately trained workers.
But a stop work order for the Holtec casks was never issued because on the same day that Shirani's audit came out, Exelon issued a report saying: "The subject findings were thoroughly evaluated and all the issues were resolved satisfactorily during the audit by the team not to have any impact on the Dresden station Unit and Dry Storage Cask loading."
Shirani contends Exelon knowingly lied on its report since the nine problem items couldn't have been resolved since his audit had just been issued.
OSCAR SHIRANI: What they were doing in the next month or two, they were loading the casks. And if you're loading the casks or you bringing the plant to power, there should not be any outstanding nonconformance reports. So because of the production they go and lie and willfully violate the code.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, provides oversight for the nuclear industry. Some at the NRC were also concerned with the design of the Holtec casks used at Dresden.
In this report issued in 2001, the NRC inspector for the Midwest region, Ross Landsman says, as Shirani did, that welds were faulty. And even more alarming, records of who did the welding and the process they used did not exist. Landsman refused to sign off on this letter giving Dresden the go-ahead to load the dry casks. And he tried to get the NRC to follow up on his and Shirani's findings, with no success.
Landsman would not agree to an on-camera interview, but off camera he said: "Every time I found something wrong with the Holtec casks, my colleagues in Washington gave them an exemption." And "I remain concerned about the safety of the Holtec Dry Casks. The NRC should stop the production of the casks, but they do not have the chutzpah to do it. This is the kind of thinking that causes space shuttles to hit the ground."
But the NRC's spokesperson for the Midwest, Jan Strasma, says the NRC has completed a thorough investigation of the allegations about unsafe dry casks.
JAN STRASMA: We have done inspections at the cask vendor. We've looked at their program. We've looked at what they did to fix the program and considered that these issues are resolved.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And the primary vendor, Holtec International, whose cask in this artist's rendering is shown in transit, said in a statement: "The casks are absolutely safe. They have met every regulatory requirement with great margins so there is no chance of leakage either on a plant site or in transport."
Shirani was fired ten months after his dry cask audit. He lost the whistleblower discrimination case he filed with the Department of Labor. Those who oppose a new reactor at Clinton are pressing for congressional hearings to air Shirani's charges. They are pleased that the permitting process for a new reactor takes years -- years they say they will use to continue to fight against a second reactor on the Clinton site.