Vt. Yankee called upon to change storage of radioactive waste
Two authors of a 2003 report that found that densely packed spent fuel pools like the one at Vermont Yankee create a heightened fire danger and the risk of a catastrophic release of radioactivity are calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed up transfer of the plant’s radioactive waste back to lower density pools and to dry casks.
Both men have called for the independently produced experts’ report, which was also co-authored by current NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, to be considered as the five-member commission prepares to decide on long-term use of high-density spent fuel pools, such as Vermont Yankee began using in conjunction with its 2012 relicensing.
NRC review of spent fuel storage comes in the wake of the 2011 earthquake at Japan’s Fukushima plant, where loss of power prevented plant operators from pumping water to keep fuel cool. Some of that radioactive material burned and was released.
The men say the current storage regime, which Vermont Yankee uses for its nearly 3,000 spent-fuel assemblies, is at risk from a terrorist attack or water loss that could result in a fire that’s more dangerous than a meltdown.
The federal government has never fulfilled its promise to create a permanent national repository for highly radioactive spent fuel rods, so that all of Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel has been stored, closely packed in a pool of water, at the plant, and will stay on site for the foreseeable future.
Macfarlane, who at the time of the report was a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of eight co-authors of “Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States,” along with Gordon Thompson, executive director of Cambridge-based Institute for Resource and Security Studies and Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
They have urged that fuel older than five years be stored in air-cooled dry concrete casks, such as those that hold more than 900 additional fuel assemblies.
Macfarlane, who at the time of the study was a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of eight co-authors of “Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States,” along with Gordon Thompson, executive director of Cambridge-based Institute for Resource and Security Studies and Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, says it believes the risks are small.
An NRC staff analysis done in July downplayed any advantages from looser fuel storage, which was how nuclear plants designed and built in the 1970s originally operated.
“The staff’s analysis is seriously deficient and inconsistent with the previous independent technical study by the NRC’s current chair,” said environmental attorney Diane Curran, who participated recently with Alvarez and Thompson in a press conference about the spent fuel pool issue. “We’re calling upon Dr. Macfarlane to apply her expertise and to lead the commission to a decision that protects the public and the environment from the unacceptable risk of a pool fire.”
Referring to the NRC’s argument that the cost to nuclear plants would be too burdensome, Curran said, “This is no time or place to coddle an industry that is constantly looking to give short shrift to safety to save money. The cost of a spent fuel pool fire would be astronomical.”
Thompson termed “very misleading” the staff’s proposed approach of simply not using some of the available rack space in a high-density configuration. He added, that the NRC’s draft study “should be scrapped and the NRC should start again with an actual science-based study of pool fire risks.”
When nuclear plants like Vermont Yankee were designed, it was assumed that their spent fuel pools would have capacity to hold five years’ worth of spent assemblies and that the federal government would build a repository at Yucca Mountain to take possession of the high-level waste. The pools are now holding four to five times the number of assemblies they were originally designed for, said Alvarez.
Alvarez said the fuel rods have been put in long rectangular boxes lined with what’s supposed to be a neutron-absorbing substance to keep the fuel rods from starting a nuclear chain reaction. But in an accident in which water is drained from the pool, the boxes with tightly packed assemblies would interfere with cool air circulation, causing them to become “defacto Thermos bottles” that retain the heat that might cause the rods to ignite. “This is why open-frame storage is a much, much safer alternative,” said Alvarez.
Raymond Shadis, senior technical adviser to the Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear watchdog New England Coalition, said, “The state of Vermont wants Yankee to expedite movement of the fuel to dry casks, and so far they don’t show any of signs of doing that.”
In dry casks, the rods presumably are stored far enough apart to avoid overheating.
“There’s no reason they can’t do that, except for the expense,” said Shadis.
In April, Alvarez told Vermont legislators that because spent fuel pools were designed to be temporary repositories, they were not required to be protected by containment vessels with backup electricity and water supplies. When power failed at Fukushima, reactor operators could no longer pump water to keep the fuel cool. Some of the material burned, releasing radiation.
Howard Schaffer, a nuclear engineer listening to Alvareez’s comments at the time, said he was overstating the dangers of the fuel pool at the Vernon plant.
Moving the fuel out of its above-ground pool to hardened steel and concrete casks would cost $42 million, Alvarez estimated.
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