USA’s dangerous pools of spent nuclear fuel rods

Congress needs to focus on how nuclear waste is stored now By Dave Lochbaum and Robert Cowin, Union of Concerned Scientists – 05/01/13  U.S. nuclear power plants have been generating electricity for more than 50 years, but the nuclear industry and the federal government have yet to figure out what to do with nuclear waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. On April 25, a bipartisan group of senators — Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) — released draft legislation addressing this intractable problem.

Their proposed bill, which mirrors the recommendations of the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, would lay the groundwork for an interim storage facility that would hold nuclear waste until the government builds a permanent repository. No argument with that. But their draft, unfortunately, suffers from a glaring omission: It fails to improve waste management practices at nuclear power plants across the country. Even under the rosiest scenario, it will take years to site and build an interim storage facility. In the meantime, ever-growing quantities of nuclear waste will remain at nuclear plants for a long time.
Why is that a problem? Plant owners—who never expected to have to deal with large amounts of radioactive waste on site—are not storing it as safely as they should or could. The blue ribbon commission failed to address this critical issue in its final report, and if the senators stick strictly to the commission’s recommendations, their legislation will do little or nothing to lessen this threat to public safety.
More than 30 years ago, nuclear plant owners and the Department of Energy (DOE) struck a deal. The owners agreed to pay into what’s called the Nuclear Waste Fund to help finance DOE construction of a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste by 1998. Fifteen years later there is still no repository, and the DOE has had to pay plant owners millions in damages for breach of contract. Meanwhile, 70,000 metric tons of radioactive nuclear waste — the used, or “spent,” nuclear fuel — is building up at plant sites around the country, and nearly 75 percent of it is sitting in overcrowded cooling pools. 

What’s so bad about the cooling pools? They lack diverse emergency cooling and water makeup systems and most are not located within robust containment structures. They also rely on electricity, and are thus vulnerable to events leading to power loss, such as flooding and seismic activity, or to terrorist strikes that cause a loss of water from the pool. Loss of cooling could result in fuel damage and a potentially massive radiological release. Such a scenario was a main concern during the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, where the facility’s cooling systems failed due to lack of power.

The high density of fuel in the pools is also a concern. More spent fuel in pools increases the heat load and reduces the response time necessary to address problems. Storing less radioactive material in the pools would mean a smaller radiological release in the event of an accident.

Fortunately there is a more sensible, safer solution: transfer the spent fuel rods to cement and steel casks. Unlike the pools, dry casks are cooled by a “passive” air system that doesn’t require electricity to operate. A case in point is Fukushima: The safety of the spent fuel stored in the facility’s dry casks was never in doubt during the accident.

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