US senator calls for rethink of nuclear spent-fuel pool policy
Washington (Platts)--30Mar2011/400 pm EDT/2000 GMT
The US should reconsider its use of water-filled pools for the long-term
storage of spent nuclear fuel given the continuing crisis in Japan, US Senator
Diane Feinstein told the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations
Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said at a hearing on the
Japan disaster that the US must rethink how it manages spent-nuclear fuel.
"These pools often become de facto long-term storage," she said. "I have
a hard time understanding why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not
mandated a more rapid transfer of spent fuel to dry casks."
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A magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Japan March 11, and resulting
massive tsunami, damaged the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima I nuclear
plant and led to continuing releases of radiation.
Problems at the reactors were primarily caused by the loss of offsite
power and the inability to supply the reactors and spent fuel pools with
"The situation in Japan suggests we should quicken the move to dry cask
storage," Feinstein said.
Spent fuel taken out of a reactor must be cooled for about five
years before it can be moved to dry cask storage. Some nuclear power plants in
the US, however, do not use dry casks, and keep the spent fuel in pools
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Feinstein he believes spent-fuel pools
are safe and secure, and said the agency will be examining the long-term use
of the pools as part of a broader review of US nuclear plant safety ordered
earlier this month by President Barack Obama.
"The information we have right now shows that both of these methodologies
are equally safe for a very long period of time," he said. Spent-fuel pools
are hardened to withstand the same level of accident or disaster that may
befall the reactor, he said.
"As the fuel gets cooler the liklihood of the very severe type of
accident from spent fuel gets reduced significantly," Jaczko said. "The
concern is that we have a fire, essentially, and it releases a lot of
radioactive material from the spent fuel pools. As the fuel ages, the
liklihood of that fire reduces dramatically."
Jaczko also told the panel that on-site storage of spent nuclear fuel
would be safe for up to 100 years.
Ernest Moniz, an MIT physics professor and a member of DOE's Blue Ribbon
Commission on America's Nuclear Future, told the subcommittee that while he
believes there was a good case for the safety of storing spent fuel onsite for
100 years, he also said data to support that is skimpy.
"It may be that the fuel can be contained for 100 years in dry cask
storage, but what about moving it then, would moving it compromise integrity?"
A policy on storing spent fuel depends on where it would eventually go.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu terminated a long-planned national nuclear
repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and convened the Blue Ribbon commission
to recommend alternatives. The panel is expected to complete its report in
Putting off a national nuclear waste policy makes it difficult to
maintain a coherent policy for storing spent fuel on site, William Levis, the
president and COO of PSEG Power, told the subcommittee. The company operates
two nuclear reactors, and Levis testified on behalf of the Nuclear Energy
Institute, an industry trade group.
"We want to limit the number of times we handle used fuel," Levis said.
Not all dry casks can be used for transport, so a national policy on the
eventual disposition of the waste is crucial to making the decision on what
type of cask to use, he said.
--Derek Sands, email@example.com