On Tuesday, May 27, 2014, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted to accept its professional staff’s recommendation to leave its current policy regarding spent fuel storage in place. Despite a large amount of public and political pressure, it will not require licensees to expedite the relocation of used nuclear fuel from carefully engineered and seismically qualified used fuel storage pools and into carefully engineered and seismically qualified dry storage containers.
The firm support of current rules has a significant cost implication; each dry storage container costs approximately $1 million. The act of filling each container also requires an undetermined amount of money in planning and execution. A dry storage container for a boiling water reactor holds a maximum of 87 fuel assemblies, while one used at a pressurized water reactor holds a maximum of 37 fuel assemblies. Expediting used fuel movement might require the each plant to load between 10-30 casks several decades earlier than currently planned. (Note: PWR assemblies are typically a 17 x 17 array while BWR assemblies typically use a 9 x 9 array.)
The majority of the Commission and the Staff recognize that requiring licensees to move fuel into dry storage casks as quickly as possible reduces licensee flexibility, may require additional fuel handling evolutions at a later date, and adds a certain level of additional occupational radiation exposure caused by handling fuel that has a higher concentration of radioactive materials that would decay with longer residence times in the existing pools.
With its vote, the Commission also decided to stop wasting time and money performing additional analysis on a topic that has already consumed a vast quantity of staff and licensee resources without producing any significant increase in public safety.
The latest in a long series of studies associated with predicting the consequences of an accident involving used fuel pools was titled Consequence Study of a Beyond-Design-Basis Earthquake Affecting the Spent Fuel Pool for a U.S. Mark I Boiling Water Reactor. It is a 416 page document full of tables, charts, and explanatory text representing the output of a project team with a manager, 10 listed authors, and 26 additional credited individuals who provided analysis and advice throughout the process of conducting the study.
Here is the bottom line of the 12 page Executive Summary produced by the responsible professionals who conducted the study and have a detailed understanding of its resulting numbers.
The beneficial effects in the reduction of offsite consequences between a high-density loading scenario and a low-density loading scenario are primarily associated with the reduction in the potential extent of land contamination and associated protective actions. The 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. The NRC plans to use the insights from this analysis to help inform a broader regulatory analysis of the spent fuel pools at U. S. nuclear reactors as part of its Japan Lessons-learned Tier 3 plan. The NRC continues to believe, based on this study and previous studies that high density storage of spent fuel in pools protects public health and safety.
A number of politicians, including Senators Boxer, Markey, and Sanders, and professional intervenor organizations, including the UCS, were disappointed by the 4-1 vote. The vote brought back memories of a pattern that arose at the end of the Jaczko era. The Chairman, personally selected and pushed forward by the Senate Majority Leader based on a history of predictable political positions, most of which are associated with used nuclear fuel policies, voted alone against a unified body of other commissioners.
Not surprisingly, the politicians and intervenors praised the Chairman for her lonely stance. Here is a quote from a statement from Dr. Edwin Lyman of the UCS.
That said, we commend NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane for her clear, logical and courageous comments accompanying her vote, which directed the NRC staff to continue its assessment.
This latest episode in the long running saga of controversy over used nuclear fuel also brings back memories of other efforts that seem to be designed to increase public fears, add unwarranted cost to nuclear power plant operations, and discourage investors from deciding that nuclear energy is worth the political trouble it imposes.
Here is a quote from Light Water: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved by Irvin C. Bupp and Jean-Claude Derian, published in 1977 — two years before the Three Mile Island accident.
Deferring the onset of the plutonium economy will cause several practical problems for the renewed growth of American nuclear generating capacity. The first of the practical difficulties implied by the new American government policy involves spent fuel storage. In the United States spent reactor fuel was piling up in water pools at power plant sites and in similar pools at incomplete reprocessing facilities. Although such storage is safe and inexpensive, it is only temporary.
The Department of Energy has assigned a high priority to a program for solving the spent fuel storage problem. The central premise of this effort is that the problem is not technical in the standard sense.
That statement was written nearly 40 years ago. Who would have thought it would continue to describe our situation regarding the safe storage of used nuclear fuel.