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Nuclear Regulatory Commission Should Better Protect Stored Nuclear Waste

The Obama administration has announced that it is canceling Yucca Mountain, the proposed permanent nuclear waste geological repository in Nevada. As such, it is likely that spent fuel will be stored at reactor sites for longer than utilities originally envisioned. It is imperative, therefore, that utilities take additional measures to ensure that spent fuel stored at reactors will remain safe and secure for decades.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a long-standing position that, in the absence of a permanent geological repository, interim storage of spent nuclear fuel in dry casks at reactor sites is the most economically viable and secure option for at least 50 years—if spent fuel storage areas are hardened against attack.

In November 2008, the Massachusetts-based C-10 Research and Education Foundation submitted a “petition for rulemaking” to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), requesting that the NRC “amend the licensing requirements for the independent storage of spent nuclear fuel, high-level radioactive waste, and reactor-related greater than class C waste.” See “Related Resources” for the Federal Register Listing of Petition.

UCS has not conducted the necessary technical analysis of C-10’s detailed 12-part petition in order to fully endorse its recommendations. However, UCS does fully endorse and encourage adoption of provision 11 of the petition, which would require rule changes to “fortify independent spent fuel storage installations (ISFSIs) and dry casks from terrorist attacks.” The provision states that “attackers gaining access to an ISFSI could employ readily available skills and explosives to penetrate a canister in a manner that allows free floe to the spent fuel and could use incendiary devices to initiate burning of fuel cladding, leading to the release of radioactive material to the atmosphere.”

U.S. nuclear power reactors require refueling every 18 to 24 months. During refueling, workers remove 40 percent or more of the nuclear fuel—which remains hot and highly radioactive for years—and place it into large pools of water that are kept at a constant low temperature. Such wet storage prevents the spent fuel from overheating, melting, and possibly catching fire. An accident or terrorist attack that cripples a wet pool's ability to keep spent fuel at a safe, low temperature could cause the metal coating around the fuel to burn and the fuel itself to melt, releasing a large amount of dangerous radioactive material. This risk is increased by the common practice of densely packing spent fuel in pools that were designed to hold far less spent fuel. This increases the heat load and can inhibit cooling in the event of a rapid loss of pool water.

As such, UCS believes that as soon as it is safe to do so, most of the spent fuel at reactors should be put into dry casks. Fuel in dry casks is less likely to catch fire, and terrorists would have to break open many dry casks to release the same amount of radioactivity that a single wet pool could release. We have previously urged the NRC to require nuclear plant operators to expeditiously transfer spent fuel from wet pools to dry casks. See "Related Articles" for a UCS issue brief on spent nuclear fuel security.

To reduce the vulnerability of these dry casks, the NRC should adopt new “physical protection standards” that enhance the security requirements for dry cask storage so that the fuel will be protected against reasonably foreseeable threats that might emerge over several decades. The new standards should consider credible scenarios by which attackers could gain access to and release the radioactive material from the dry casks. Protection would involve a combination of operational measures and physical measures, such as putting spent fuel casks into enclosed buildings, using earthen berms, or erecting other barriers.


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