Where is the USA’s spent fuel? How is it stored?

Yesterday I wrote about a controversy over whether spent fuel could ignite if the water in the spent fuel pools were lost, either by leakage or by boiloff when cooling capability was impaired (say, by loss of electricity to the spent fuel cooling system’s pumps).  I wrote that the recommendation of the National Academies had been to store spent fuel rods in dry casks, in order to reduce vulnerability to fire in the spent fuel pit should cooling and/or water be lost.  I wrote that the industry lobbyist group, NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute)’s fact sheet on Fukushima dated 3/15/2011 (and still online as of yesterday) assured us that it was “virtually impossible” for the spent fuel to ignite, even in such a circumstance.

I didn’t have anything to relate about what U.S. plants had actually done in response to the National Academies’ recommendation that the spent fuel be stored in dry casks in yesterday’s post.  Now there is an article in The Miami Herald (3/17/2011) about that:

U.S. nuclear plants store more spent fuel than Japan’s, experts say.  ( http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/03/17/2120693/us-nuclear-plants-store-more-spent.html )

The article gives us some insight into how the U.S. NRC has approached the matter:

“Burnell said that research after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and extensive reviews of plant operations show ‘that it is possible even under emergency conditions to maintain an appropriate level of water in a spent fuel pool using very simple techniques’ even under conditions where radiation levels would be high.”

But, as the Miami Herald points out,   “High radiation levels have deterred efforts in Japan to dump water into the pools.”

This is beyond design basis.  The NRC analysis doesn’t have an account of what happens for the scenario that the Japanese faced this past week.   Nature doesn’t seem to respect the limits of the NRC’s analysis.  It doesn’t stay within those limits.

So, should anything be done?  Some certainly feel that way — in fact, have felt that way for some time.  “Lyman and others have long called on the NRC to require plant owners to move spent fuel to dry casks. Lyman was part of a group that wrote in a separate 2004 study published in the journal Science and Global Security that a large radiation release from a fire in a storage pool could result in thousands of cancer deaths and require billions of dollars for decontamination.”

With all this advice, you’d think the utilities might find it in their best interest to invest in those casks.  But, relates the Miami Herald:  “Princeton professor Frank von Hippel, another author, said in an e-mail on Thursday that the utilities objected to spending $8 billion on casks and the NRC didn’t require them to do so.”

Maybe the utilities will feel differently next week.  Let’s hope so.

Read the rest of the article about it in The Miami Herald: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/03/17/2120693/us-nuclear-plants-store-more-spent.html#ixzz1GvUykDKg

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