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Industry Urges Realistic Assessment of Used Fuel Pool Safety

Aug. 26, 2013—As the NRC takes steps to extend the results of its recent study affirming the safety of storing used fuel in reactor pools to all U.S. reactors, a senior industry official last week urged agency staff to consider all cost and benefit factors when it makes recommendations on whether to expedite moving used fuel from the pools to dry casks.

NRC staff recently published its draft “Consequence Study of a Beyond-Design-Basis Earthquake Affecting the Spent Fuel Pool for a U.S. Mark I Boiling Water Reactor,” which found that the used fuel pools for the specific plant studied could withstand a hypothetical earthquake more severe than the one that struck Fukushima Daiichi’s Mark I reactors in March 2011.

Speaking at an NRC webinar meeting explaining the regulatory analysis the agency is conducting to support extending the results of the study, Luminant Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer Rafael Flores said the industry supports that finding and the study’s conclusion that the expedited transfer of used fuel to dry cask storage “does not provide a substantial safety enhancement” (see Nuclear Energy Overview, Aug. 6).

“Spent fuel storage in our pools is safe and secure,” Flores said. “Spent nuclear fuel is extremely well-protected from potential natural events and terrorist attacks by a combination of sturdy plant design and construction, ongoing surveillance and inspection, and armed, well-trained security forces.”

Flores added that the NRC study used “a number of conservatisms” that could be construed to overstate the case for transferring fuel to dry storage, including not considering the risks and costs of moving fuel and the enhancements in pool safety required by the NRC’s new post-Fukushima requirements—such as the orders for reliable used fuel pool instrumentation and for mitigating strategies for beyond-design-basis events.

In a reference to the cumulative impact of regulations, Flores also said that the agency should “consider the benefit of any new requirement not only in comparison to the cost of the potential new requirement, but also how the proposed new requirement stacks up against other proposed new requirements.”

Flores asked the staff to take care not to be overly conservative as it applies the study’s insights to the pools at other U.S. reactors and to take into account the differences in plant design and location to ensure an accurate cost-benefit assessment.

“Based on the very, very small risks of storing used fuel in pools identified in this and previous studies and the ability of plants to mitigate beyond-design-basis events, there is no reason for the NRC to require a reduction of the density of used fuel storage in pools,” he said.

As part of its post-Fukushima lessons-learned activities, the NRC plans to publish a staff paper in September with its preliminary regulatory analysis on whether moving used fuel out of the pools will result in a cost-benefit justified “substantial increase in public health and safety,” which is the threshold for requiring changes under the NRC’s backfit rule. The paper will be available for a 75-day public comment period. The NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safety will review the paper on Oct. 3.

The NRC’s slide presentation from the Aug. 22 webinar is available on the agency’s ADAMS document search database under accession number ML13231A087.