“Historically, the Commission has chosen to generically address continued storage, and this approach was validated for appropriate circumstances by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in the same decision that vacated and remanded the 2010 Waste Confidence Decision and rule,” said the NRC in the June 24 report. “Although the environmental impacts of spent nuclear fuel storage during the licensed life for operation may be site specific, the impacts of continued storage may be assessed generically because… changes in the environment around spent nuclear fuel storage facilities are sufficiently gradual and predictable to be addressed generically.”
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Con Jobs
America’s weather and geology vary at its 100 nuclear reactor sites in 31 states, creating different dangers. These varied threats could affect spent fuel pools in diverse and potentially disastrous ways.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the Diablo Canyon Power Plant 250 miles up the Southern California coast have earthquakes as the major environmental threat. Dozens of nuclear reactors and their spent fuel pools stretching across the tornado belt of the Midwest and the hurricane country of the South face entirely different sets of challenges.
Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission judges all plants the same to determine if their spent fuel pools could remain safe stuffed with rods for 60 to 100 years after decommissioning of the reactor. The power plants would be approaching 60 years old themselves when the clock would start ticking on 60 more years of storage. The NRC says that there is almost no chance of a SFP fire in the scenarios it envisioned with the rods left in the pools for 120 years or more.
NRC released the 584-page Waste Confidence Generic Environmental Impact Statement Draft Report for Comment (3.88 MB) in August by its Waste Confidence Directorate, Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards. A blizzard of information and numbers come to a fairly uniform conclusion: nothing bad will ever happen to SFPs so they can all be treated generically as the same.
The draft report calls 60 years of continued storage after reactor closure its “short-term timeframe.” And far from expediting the transfer of vulnerable rod assemblies in the SPFs to dry casks, the commission says it’s not even necessary; “[I]t is feasible to safely store spent nuclear fuel in spent fuel pools in the short-term timeframe and in dry casks during the short-term, long-term, and indefinite timeframes.”
It helps when nature cooperates which is an assumption buried in the report that disregards statistics and common sense entirely. “Changes in the environment around spent nuclear fuel storage facilities are sufficiently gradual and predictable to be addressed generically.”
The NRC’s report, which will take public comments until November 27, has caused considerable outrage in the environmental and nuclear watchdog community. That was evident at an August 22 meeting of the NRC discussing the issue where the nearly unanimous commenters advocated that the SPFs be emptied to at least a lower density.
“No spent fuel pool is protected by containment or is required to have independent redundant cooling,” said Washington D.C. attorney Diane Curran in her August 1 comments submitted to the NRC. Curran represents an environmental coalition of dozens of groups, including Beyond Nuclear, addressing the issue. “They were meant for short-term cooling (~5 years) and weren’t intended to for multi-decade storage of 4-5 times more spent fuel than their original designs. Pools are not only vulnerable to accidents – as witnessed by the Fukushima accident – but they are prime terrorist targets.”
Curran and others including Dr. Gordon Thompson pointed out that the staff who wrote the NRC report actually recommend against transferring hot rods out of the SFPs into dry cask storage. They also questioned the scientific integrity of a study that would only consider a complete drainage of a SFP versus a partial drainage, which is actually worse.
Indeed, if a spent fuel pool loses water enough to where the fuel assemblies are exposed to each other in air, they could catch alight with an unforgettable, and unstoppable, fire. The only hope of preventing that, short of successfully refilling the pool and keeping it that way, is to let it drain completely so at least air could circulate better cooling the exposed rods.
“[T]he Study ignores the impacts of aging and the potential for an attack on a pool and/or adjacent reactor to initiate a pool fire,” Curran commented. “Vulnerability of spent fuel storage pools to terrorist attack is perhaps the greatest risk of all.”
More scientific skullduggery came out this summer also courtesy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A June 2013 NRC study about a Fukushima-style Mark I boiling water reactor at the Peach Bottom nuclear power station in Pennsylvania looked at that plant’s ability to prevent a huge earthquake from destroying one of its reactor’s spent fuel pools.
The 369-page study was called Consequence Study of a Beyond-Design-Basis Earthquake Affecting the Spent Fuel Pool for a U.S. Mark I Boiling Water Reactor (16.61 MB). The NRC used Peach Bottom as a “reference plant.” It is built on rock along the Susquehanna River in an area that has had a history over the last 50 years of having a peak horizontal acceleration eight times less than SONGS.
Sound science – and common sense – suggests that Peach Bottom and San Onofre can’t be generically lumped in together when it comes to earthquakes and spent fuel pools. The plants’ reactors and spent fuel pools are designed differently with SONGS situated on a dirt bluff in earthquake country. But no matter, as the report came up with conclusions that are alarmingly optimistic.
“This study shows the likelihood of a radiological release from the spent fuel after the analyzed severe earthquake at the reference plant to be about one time in 10 million years or lower,” the report says. “The Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation’s regulatory analysis for this study indicates that expediting movement of spent fuel from the pool does not provide a substantial safety enhancement for the reference plant.”
Humans didn’t even begin to evolve on their own until five million years ago when we diverged from our last common lineage with chimpanzees. The NRC boldly states that one of the two SFPs at Peach Bottom Power Plant will last over 2,174 times as long as the 4,600 year old pyramids at Giza, Egypt. The figure would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that the NRC is in charge of “regulating” America’s nuclear reactors and spent fuel pools and actually meant for the report to be taken seriously and save the nuclear industry millions of dollars because they wouldn’t have to do anything about their SFPs.
The NRC dismissal of the danger of spent fuel rods in pools was in admitted response to a 2002 report that Robert Alvarez published. Alvarez was part of a 2002 Institute for Policy Studies in-depth study of how vulnerable to terrorists were America’s spent fuel pools. It was accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Science and Global Security journal in January 2003. The study, Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States, (816 KB) revealed the breadth of the spent fuel rods nuclear waste problem.
“Because of the unavailability of off-site storage for spent power-reactor fuel, the NRC has allowed high-density storage of spent fuel in pools originally designed to hold much smaller inventories,” Alvarez wrote. “To reduce both the consequences and probability of a spent-fuel-pool fire, it is proposed that all spent fuel be transferred from wet to dry storage within five years of discharge. The cost of on-site dry-cask storage for an additional 35,000 tons of older spent fuel is estimated at $3.5–7 billion dollars or 0.03–0.06 cents per kilowatt-hour generated from that fuel.”
Alarmed by the Alvarez report, Congress prompted the National Academy of Sciences to investigate. NAS released its own report in 2006 called “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage.” The NAS, America’s most august scientific body, minced no words describing the dangers.
“A loss‐of‐pool‐coolant event resulting from damage or collapse of the pool could have severe consequences,” the NAS study said. “It is not prudent to dismiss nuclear plants, including spent fuel storage facilities as undesirable targets for terrorists…under some conditions, a terrorist attack that partially or completely drained a spent fuel pool could lead to a propagating zirconium cladding fire and release large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment…Such fires would create thermal plumes that could potentially transport radioactive aerosols hundreds of miles downwind under appropriate atmospheric conditions.”
Not surprisingly, the NRC didn’t agree with either Alvarez or the NAS. “The NRC concluded that the fundamental recommendation of the 2003 Alvarez paper, namely that all spent fuel more than 5 years old be placed in dry casks through an expedited 10-year program costing many billions of dollars, was not justified,” the draft study reads. “[T]he NRC disagreed with some of the conclusions from the National Academies study, including the finding that the NRC might determine that the earlier movement of spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage would be prudent, depending on the outcome of plant-specific vulnerability analysis.”
Plants are vulnerable to environmental disasters such as tornados, flooding, hurricanes and earthquakes depending on where they’re located. Peach Bottom Power Plant several miles from the Maryland border in Virginia lost 35 of its 97 emergency sirens when Hurricane Sandy roared up the Eastern Seaboard. They went out, ironically, when the plant’s power went down as they had no battery backup, according to the Lancaster New Era.
Due for a $10 million overhaul, the system is currently arrayed in a 10 mile radius of Peach Bottom in four counties in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Counter intuitively the sirens don’t signal an evacuation, rather for the public to just turn on the radio and listen to the emergency broadcasting system.
After all, there’s only a one in 10 million year chance of something going wrong with its reactor pools – pools stuffed with spent nuclear fuel rods packed in a high-density configuration and suspended four stories in the air like the destroyed reactors in Fukushima.