Jordan Lake, a 47,000-acre recreation site just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, is a picture postcard vision of Southern hospitality: Ringed with pine trees, it’s a haven for water-skiers, fishermen and sunbathers, not to mention a source of drinking water for surrounding communities. But rising out of the greenery on the lake’s southern horizon is, for many, a more ominous vision: the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, its familiar silhouette topped by a plume of steam.

As early as July, if Carolina Power and Light (CP&L) and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission have their way, the plant could be on a trajectory to becoming the nation’s largest high-level nuclear waste site. That’s if the NRC approves an operating license amendment doubling the number of spent fuel pools in use from two to four. Each pool, forty feet deep and constructed of reinforced concrete six feet thick, would store the fiercely hot and lethally radioactive byproducts of nuclear power generation at the Harris plant as well as at two others owned by CP&L.

The spent-fuel assemblies, unless put into “dry cask” storage (not currently an option at Harris) or kept in pools of deep, circulating water, will ignite if exposed to air. And that possibility is fueling fears of a worst-case scenario: a fire in all four pools that could release as much as 790 kilograms of radioactive cesium-137 into the environment (the disaster at Chernobyl released only twenty-seven kilograms). An act of terrorism, sabotage or simple water loss might trigger such an accident, which could kill tens of thousands of people and render an area the size of North Carolina uninhabitable–for centuries.

In fact, critics contend that a waste pool accident at Harris could pose a more dire threat than a meltdown of the reactor core itself, which is better fortified against attack and more capable of preventing radioactive material from escaping into the environment. While there are about 150 fuel assemblies inside the reactor at any given time, the two waste pools currently in use can hold more than 3,600. Opening two additional pools could eventually raise that number to more than 8,000. Though less radioactive than they are inside the reactor, the spent-fuel assemblies, by their sheer numbers and close proximity, could escalate virtually any problem into a major crisis.

“When you couple that possibility with the ineffectiveness of the NRC as a watchdog agency,” says Durham activist Jim Warren, executive director of the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN), “an agency that has consistently, over many years, gone along with what the nuclear industry has wanted to do, it’s an extremely dangerous situation.”

How North Carolina finds itself in the hot seat is a testament to years of pro-business policy-making in Washington that has whittled away at nuclear safety enforcement. Even internal critics like Capt. David Orrik, manager of the NRC’s Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation program (OSRE), feel that the relationship between the NRC staff and the nuclear industry has become a revolving door. “Remember Eisenhower’s saying about the military-industrial complex? Well, here it’s the NRC-industrial complex,” he says. “A lot of our upper management and commissioners have gone on to jobs in the nuclear industry. And I think some of them are much more attuned to the health and feeding of the industry than they are to public health and welfare.”

CP&L originally planned to construct four reactor units on the Harris site in the early 1970s. But in the wake of public outrage following the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, only one managed to get built–becoming operational in 1987–along with four spent-fuel pools, two of which were approved for use.

In 1989, with no federal waste site available, CP&L began to ship spent-fuel assemblies from its sister plants–the Brunswick plant in Southport, North Carolina, and the Robinson plant in Hartsville, South Carolina–to Harris, where there was more room. By December 1998, however, Harris’s first two pools were tightly packed and near capacity, so CP&L asked the NRC for permission to activate its two unused pools. It expected the approval to be routine. And indeed, one year later, the NRC obliged the company by publishing an environmental assessment concluding that the impact of the pool activation would not be significant enough to require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

What neither CP&L nor the NRC counted on, however, was the community’s fury at being shut out of the process. The neighboring Orange County Board of Commissioners took the lead in filing a formal challenge to the NRC, with support from the Durham County Board of Commissioners and the town governments of Hillsboro, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. They had expected that formal public hearings and a full EIS would precede any decision about Harris’s pool expansion. “It is beyond belief that we have to fight so hard for a hearing on an enormous nuclear waste site located in the midst of a million people,” says Orange County Commission chairman Steve Halkiotis.

In November 2000 Diane Curran, a Washington, DC, lawyer representing Orange County, filed a detailed report by expert witness Gordon Thompson, PhD, of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, demonstrating that CP&L and the NRC had underestimated the potential for a severe waste-pool fire at Harris. While acknowledging “significant differences of opinion” among scientists about the likelihood of such an accident, Curran says that the NRC staff has never given these safety issues the rigorous public examination they require.

As if to make her point for her, a month later the NRC staff granted CP&L’s expansion request. Critics complained that the NRC staff had violated fundamental requirements of scientific review by accepting CP&L’s safety assertions without verification, failed to supply data to support its conclusions and joined with CP&L in attacking the credentials of Orange County’s technical consultants, including Thompson. Curran renewed her calls for public hearings.

“When Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act in 1954, it made a grand bargain,” Curran says. “In exchange for state and local governments giving up their right to regulate nuclear power, and in exchange for accepting liability limits that could leave state and local governments unprotected financially in a nuclear accident, the public was given a right to a hearing. In this case, the NRC has reneged on that bargain, and refused at every turn to give Orange County the hearing to which it’s entitled.”

The critics’ safety fears are not unfounded. At least four emergency shutdowns of the Harris reactor have occurred since 1999. In March 2000, a Brunswick reactor and waste pool lost cooling for nine hours during a refueling power outage–a crisis made worse when the plant’s diesel backup generators failed to operate. In June 2000 a bearing failure in an emergency cooling pump at Harris resulted in a “level two violation,” which reduced the number of possible safety backups.

Then there’s the human element. In 2000 CP&L’s number-two security officer, Richard Kester, sued the company under the Whistleblower Protection Act for allegedly firing him after he refused to lie to the NRC about security lapses. In his trial testimony, he recounted multiple company violations, describing how several workers gained inappropriate access to CP&L plants between 1996 and 1999. “The substantive things that came out at trial certainly don’t inspire confidence that CP&L should be handling and stockpiling high-level radioactive waste, or that they’ll keep it safe from security threats,” says Kester’s Durham attorney, Stewart Fisher.

On February 15 of this year, in the wake of public protests as well as pointed inquiries from North Carolina’s Senator John Edwards and Representative David Price, the five federally appointed commissioners heading the NRC put their staff’s expansion approval on hold. A month later, however, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board denied Orange County’s request for a hearing, a decision Curran is appealing in court.

In mid-March, the NRC’s inspector general launched an investigation of the NRC staff and NRC licensing board based on their handling of CP&L’s expansion request. The outcome of the IG’s investigation could either derail, postpone or give a green light to the Harris waste-pool expansion–but activists are keeping the issue in the spotlight. At a rally sponsored by NC WARN, the Student Environmental Action Coalition and the Coalition Against Nuclear Imports to the Triangle, CP&L was told to “stop mutating the truth” and to participate in open safety hearings on the waste expansion. And critics contend that Representative Price and Senator Edwards should take an even greater leadership role in resisting the expansion until safety issues have been resolved. But CP&L spokesman Mike Hughes remains adamant that the size of Harris’s storage site is irrelevant. “It has to be a safe facility, whether there’s one assembly or thousands of assemblies in it. So it really doesn’t matter what the size is.”

However, David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that dangers associated with spent-fuel cooling pools could be decreased if they were less densely packed, reducing the likelihood of fire even in the event of water loss. But he stresses that the problem of what to do with nuclear waste remains unsolved. “It would seem prudent that you have that answer before you looked at building more nuclear power plants, or running existing plants for longer periods of time,” he says. “Unfortunately, with this Administration, prudence doesn’t seem to be a real high priority.”