Rapid Response: Nuclear Plant Fuel Storage Is Safe, Secure Despite Alarmist Report, May 24, 2011
A report released today by the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, claims that the used nuclear fuel in storage pools at nuclear energy facilities presents risks to workers and the public. The IPS claims seek to catalogue the radioactivity in fuel storage pools at U.S. reactors and portray events that could happen as if there were no radiation protection or safety practices in place. Contrary to this attempt to raise fears over nuclear energy, U.S. industry practices and programs have maintained used nuclear fuel safely and securely for five decades.
Below, we analyze IPS’s assertions and present the facts.
“U.S. spent nuclear fuel pools are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements…”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that used nuclear fuel stored in pools be protected against all natural phenomena such as earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis and seiches. The spent fuel pools that hold the used fuel are robust, thick steel re-enforced and stainless steel-lined concrete structures. The buildings that surround the spent fuel pools, which are approved by the NRC, in some instances are constructed of reinforced concrete, while others incorporate the use of structural steel beams and steel siding or a combination of the two. In all cases the buildings are structurally stronger than ordinary industrial or commercial buildings. The combination of the pool structure and the surrounding building ensure the safety of the used fuel stored in pools against natural phenomena. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, computer modeling demonstrated that both storage pools and dry storage containers would keep fuel safe, thereby preventing a release of radiation, even if struck by a commercial aircraft.
Used uranium fuel is a solid material that is stored safely and securely at nuclear energy facilities either in enclosed, steel-lined concrete pools filled with water, or in steel or reinforced concrete containers with steel inner canisters. Water in these storage pools, typically about 40 feet deep, serves both to shield radiation and cool the fuel. The independent NRC said that both pool and container storage of used nuclear fuel protects public and worker safety. NRC inspectors at each nuclear plant site inspect fuel storage pool operations during each refueling outage. The agency also performs special inspections to verify that new cooling capabilities and operating practices are implemented properly.
If electrical power is lost at a nuclear energy facility, systems and procedures are in place to assure backup water is supplied to vital safety functions, including maintaining cooling water levels in fuel pools.
“The U.S. government should promptly take steps to reduce these risks by placing all spent nuclear fuel older than five years in dry, hardened storage casks ...”
Spent fuel pools and dry cask storage are both safe and secure options for storing used nuclear fuel. There is no immediate safety benefit derived from transferring used fuel from fuel storage pools to on-site dry container storage.
The NRC has stated:
“The NRC believes spent fuel pools and dry casks both provide adequate protection of the public health and safety and the environment. Therefore there is no pressing safety or security reason to mandate earlier transfer of fuel from pool to cask …”
The NRC has also issued orders to plant operators requiring several measures to mitigate the effects of a large fire, explosion or accident that might damage a fuel storage pool’s cooling capability.
These measures include:
controlling the configuration of fuel assemblies in the pool to enhance the ability to keep the fuel cool and recover from damage to the pool
establishing emergency spent fuel cooling capability
staging emergency response equipment nearby so it can be deployed quickly.
Planning for long-term managed storage of spent nuclear fuel—for about a century—should be an integral part of nuclear fuel cycle design. While managed storage is believed to be safe for these periods, an R&D program should be devoted to confirm and extend the safe storage and transport period.
The possibility of storage for a century, which is longer than the anticipated operating lifetimes of nuclear reactors, suggests that the U.S. should move toward centralized used nuclear fuel storage sites—starting with used nuclear fuel from decommissioned reactor sites and in support of a long-term used nuclear fuel management strategy.
For more information on spent fuel pools at nuclear energy facilities, see: