LACEY TOWNSHIP — Twenty concrete vaults sit side-by-side, like self-storage containers, next to the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant. These concrete tombs hold fuel cells, each containing 12-foot rods of enriched uranium. The rods are toxic and radioactive and were never intended to be stored here indefinitely, among Ocean County's 560,000 residents.

Nationwide, about 70,000 tons of fuel rods wait for long-term storage — the very long term. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that spent fuel stored at New Jersey's four nuclear power plants will remain dangerous to humans for at least 10,000 years and harmful to the environment for 1 million years more. The industry generates about 2,200 tons more of the waste each year, and many companies have plans to expand nuclear power in the United States — PSEG wants to build a new plant in Salem County's Lower Alloways Creek Township.

Nobody, not even the owner of the southern New Jersey power plant, wants to keep this radioactive waste so close. But as a new presidential panel investigates what to do with spent fuel, nuclear energy experts say there are few options.

Enriched uranium is so deadly the U.S. Department of Homeland Security considers spent fuel "self-protecting" because contact with enriched uranium would kill a would-be terrorist. Close exposure is lethal in minutes, said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington, D.C., policy group that studies nuclear issues.

"You wouldn't steal a spent-fuel canister. They're large, heavy and highly radioactive," he said.

Oyster Creek, which is owned by Exelon Corp., and New Jersey's three other nuclear plants in Salem County store their fuel on-site, as do virtually all of America's 104 nuclear plants.

Oyster Creek uses fuel rods to produce steam that turns turbines and generates electricity. But as the nuclear material cools, it becomes less useful as fuel.

This 625-megawatt power plant replaces one-third to one-half of its nuclear fuel every two years. Workers use a crane to move the 14-foot-tall fuel cells from the plant's core to an adjacent 40-foot-deep pool of water, where the uranium continues to cool for years. This pool has enough room to store all 560 rods of uranium in the plant's core, if necessary, said Adam H. Levin, a spent-fuel expert for Exelon Corp., Oyster Creek's parent company. For longer-term storage, Oyster Creek uses dry casks. Workers encase the oldest cells in a stainless-steel canister that resembles an egg crate, Levin said. Each canister can hold 61 cells and each cell holds up to 100 uranium rods.

The canister goes inside a second steel transfer cask that workers fill with helium and weld airtight. The helium is an inert gas that prevents corrosion and helps workers detect leaks. Then this "dry cask" is placed inside a steel-lined vault that has three feet of concrete to guard against exterior sabotage. Exelon said studies conducted on these bunkers after the 9-11 terror attacks found they could withstand the impact of a large commercial aircraft without exposing the uranium.

"We looked at these scenarios after the 9/11 attacks," Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said. "What if someone were to try to attack these dry-cask storage units? We think they're able to stand up to an attack or any threat from nature."

The spent fuel can remain in Lacey Township for decades, even indefinitely. But long-term storage here was never envisioned, nor is it desired, Levin said.

"We can manage spent fuel safely at our site. It just doesn't make sense for us to be doing so," Levin said. "It makes far more sense to look at one or two centralized facilities that could store fuel for an extended period or potentially recycle that fuel."

Indifference in Lacey

Oyster Creek is a big part of daily life in Lacey Township, but few people give much thought to the uranium next door.

A 2009 Gallup Environment Poll found that 59 percent of Americans support nuclear power, the highest rate since 1994. And many people in Ocean County have financial ties to the plant or know friends or family who do. The plant has generated electricity without serious incident for more than 40 years.

Noah's Ark Day School cares for preschoolers about a mile south of the plant in Waretown. Owner Maureen Barte gives parents printed evacuation instructions in the event of a nuclear accident. The daycare center and nearby schools would be alerted to any danger from the plant even before the general public. And they keep a stockpile of potassium iodide pills, which are designed to protect the thyroid from absorbing harmful radiation.

But parents who come to enroll their children rarely have any questions.

"If you put your child in a daycare center next to a nuclear power plant, are they going to be that concerned? Not really," she said.

"Would I like to see the nuclear fuel moved? Of course. But does it profoundly worry me? No. I'm more concerned about forest fires and flooding," she said of two tangible natural disasters that have struck Ocean County in recent months.

Sal DeSimone, owner of Vesuvio Pizzeria, closely follows the plant's maintenance schedule. The periodic shutdowns for maintanence draw hundreds of hungry contractors to his restaurant. Even routine upgrades at the plant can increase his lunch crowd by 25 percent, he said.

"People were introduced to nuclear power through the atom bomb," DeSimone said. "But me personally? I don't worry about things like that. The way I look at it, it's more dangerous to get in my car and drive to work in the morning."

Bob Concia, owner of Bob's Square Deal Hardware Store, knows employees who work there and trusts them. The plant's needs generate valuable business, he said.

Mary Hammett, who runs Hammett's Garden and Landscape on Route 9, said the plant is an integral part of the business community.

"Everyone has the (potassium iodide) pills. We have our escape routes. My only fear is what happens if they close? I don't want another Ciba Geigy like in Toms River," she said.

Pollution at the Ciba Geigy Chemical Corp. in Toms River Township, which closed in 1996, is still being cleaned up as a SuperFund site that prompted lawsuits and a $13 million settlement to nearby families stricken with cancer.

Oyster Creek is prepared to move its fuel casks back to the spent-fuel pool in the unlikely event of a breach, the NRC's Sheehan said. Safety protocols call for a stepped response with evacuations or sheltering in place depending on the radiation exposure.

The long-term environmental effects from a leak could be substantial. Radiation was detected globally after the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded in 1986. A 2006 study by the International Atomic Energy Agency found high levels of radiation in nearby forests 20 years after the reactor explosion. Radiation is expected to persist in plants and animals there for decades to come. The study found that people living high in the arctic were exposed to toxic radiation from eating reindeer that fed on lichen irradiated by the disaster.

No Plan B

President Obama in January appointed Exelon Chief Executive John Rowe to a panel to solve the problem of storing spent fuel.

Driving the argument is whether America should pay for a long-term solution now or pass that duty to future generations who presumably will have technological advantages.

"People have looked at it as a philosophical issue. We can't not care about legacy waste. That's how Love Canal emerged and Superfund sites," Lyman said.

New Jersey has more Superfund sites than any other state, thanks to decades of unchecked industrial pollution. Left unaddressed, this pollution can lead to serious risks such as the 2006 opening of a Gloucester County daycare center in a former Franklin Township thermometer factory that exposed children to toxic mercury.

"You want to minimize the risk to the current generation," Lyman said. "It doesn't make sense to protect whoever is around 10,000 years from now."

For decades, Congress planned to put nuclear waste in the middle of the Nevada desert in what scientists call a geological repository. The idea was to find a place safe from manmade or natural disasters — including New Jersey coastal storms or California earthquakes — where the radioactive isotopes could quietly decay for eons. But the site, Yucca Mountain, was porous and wet and potentially corrosive to fuel canisters.

Under political pressure from Nevada residents, funding was cut from the project, once considered the best option.

"There never really was a Plan B," said Allen Benson, spokesman for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. This agency was created under the Reagan Administration to oversee the development of Yucca Mountain. It became defunct this year and merged with the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy.

"We're closing down. This office is closing. People are looking for jobs," Benson said.

Geological storage is still considered the best long-term solution. But if an unpopulated desert is unacceptable, finding a better alternative could prove daunting. And putting the waste in densely populated states such as New Jersey is probably out of the question.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has long promised residents in Lacey Township that spent fuel would be moved, Mayor Gary Quinn said.

"It's not an extreme emergency, but the governing body is upset in how it all played out," Quinn said. "We went into this thing with the understanding — the guarantee — that Yucca Mountain would become a reality and the spent fuel would be trucked out. It's something we know we'll have to deal with for years to come."

Weapons from fuel

Scientists have ruled out other options such as dropping the waste in the ocean or shooting it off into space.

One alternative is reprocessing, a kind of recycling that gives new life to old fuel cells but at a cost. Reprocessing creates more low-level waste along with a dangerous byproduct — plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. Reprocessing is a choice countries such as Japan have made because of worries about storing nuclear fuel in populated areas, Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel said.

"It costs $100 billion more than what we do. Their local governments did not allow them to store waste on site. Therefore, the only alternative to shutting down power plants was to ship spent fuel to a reprocessing plant," he said.

An expert on nuclear proliferation, Von Hippel formerly worked as assistant director for national security at the White House Office of Science and Technology. He was reached in Beijing, China, last month where he was attending an international conference on nuclear power.

"I'm trying to explain why they should worry more about the proliferation implications. It's not weapons-grade, but weapons-usable," he said.

Von Hippel said a geological repository poses far less risk to safety than on-site storage — or even the plants themselves.

"If you look at it objectively, the hazard from a repository 1,500 feet underground is negligible compared to the power plant and spent fuel on the surface," he said.

And in an age of increasing sophistication by terror groups, this is a legitimate concern, Lyman said.

"Reprocessing is doing the work of terrorists for them," Lyman said.

New Jersey's nuclear security was questioned this month after a former contract laborer at the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear power plants was arrested in Yemen in a sweep of suspected members of the terror group al-Qaida. Former Buena, Atlantic County, resident Sharif Mobley, 26, allegedly shot and killed a security guard at a hospital during an escape attempt. As recently as 2008, he had gotten high security clearances that workers call "red badges" that allowed him near sensitive parts of the plants.

Interim solution

Perhaps the most realistic option is simply to scale back the ambitions of storing nuclear fuel in one place for so long. A presidential panel is studying the problem.

"Ten thousand years ago, the first people were settling Mesopotamia and trying to figure out how to grow crops," said Jeff Tittel, spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.

Back then New Jersey likely had polar bears, natural history scientists believe, and a sloth as tall as a giraffe browsed what is now the Pine Barrens. But the presidential panel is looking to store nuclear waste at least three times longer than when King Tut was crowned child king of Egypt.

"We live in a society where things 50 years old are obsolete and we forget about them. What will happen 200 years from now?" Tittel asked.

He said the study is a smokescreen to cover up the fact that federal regulators have no real answers to the problem.

"The point of that is to just make it look like they were doing something," he said. "If you can't even find a place in the middle of the Nevada desert that's safe, where can you? I don't think that place exists."

Meanwhile, Princeton's Von Hippel said the dangers of nuclear waste are statistically less significant compared to common toxins such mercury.

"We have waste that lasts forever such as lead and arsenic. It's a funny thing. This somehow comes up only with regard to radioactive material," he said.

In the meantime, Congress wants to expand distribution of potassium iodide from 10 to 20 miles around nuclear power plants. That would include all of Ocean County and parts of neighboring Atlantic and Burlington.

Lacey's mayor said he keeps the pills in a kitchen cabinet at home — tucked away but not forgotten.

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7247