NRC Commissioners Kill Further Study of Moving Dangerously Radioactive Spent Fuel from Cooling Pools to Safer Dry Casks

Statement by Edwin Lyman, Union Of Concerned Scientists

Published May 27, 2014

WASHINGTON (May 27, 2014) — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission today announced that four of its five members voted to decline further consideration of a plan to expedite transferring spent nuclear fuel from cooling pools to dry casks at U.S. nuclear plants. The lone vote to continue to study the issue was cast by NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has long been urging the agency to require plant owners to thin out dangerously overcrowded spent fuel pools to reduce the risk to public health and safety in the event of a serious accident or terrorist attack. Under current conditions, the severity of such an event could dwarf the economic and social disruption caused by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Below is a statement by Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the UCS Global Security Program.

“This is a deeply disappointing and shortsighted decision. The four commissioners failed to acknowledge the serious risks posed by overcrowded spent fuel pools.

“Perhaps what’s most disturbing, the four commissioners relied heavily on a flawed and incomplete analysis that was criticized by members of the NRC’s own staff. For an agency that purports to make decisions based on the best technical information, it makes no sense for the NRC to block further research into the many questions raised by this analysis unless it is afraid of the answers it might find. More knowledge is never a bad thing.

“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. Her vote commentary points out that, according to the NRC staff’s study, reducing the density of spent fuel in a pool at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, for example, could lower the human health consequences of a zirconium fire by more than a factor of 10, the number of individuals who may have to abandon their homes by a factor of 50, and the economic cost by $100 billion.

“In our view, the evidence is crystal clear. Reducing the density of spent fuel in pools by expeditiously transferring spent fuel to safer dry storage casks would greatly reduce the chance that a massive amount of highly radioactive material gets into the environment.”