Repairing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in Japan after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami addresses only part of the problem. Three of seven damaged cooling pools that store spent fuel rods are still emitting radiation there. Spent fuel rods were exposed to the air and released large amounts of radiation after the tsunami knocked out the cooling system; it is a graphic example of the risks inherent in onsite spent-fuel storage.
And it’s a storage method replicated at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York, which sits on the Ramapo Fault line and is the focus of much concern. Cooling pools for spent fuel are also used at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station near New London, Ct., Salem Nuclear Power Plant in South Jersey, and Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Tom’s River, N.J., a plant with the same design as Fukushima. It’s now a storage method some scientists want banned in the United States.
David Lochbaum with the Union of Concerned Scientists says, “At Indian Point and reactor sites across the US, spent fuel is stored in poorly protected, poorly defended locations. That translates into elevated and undue risk.”
TOWN OF GREENBURGH IS CONCERNED
Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, whose constituency lives a few miles South of the plant, has urged residents to support the closing of Indian Point.
He writes in a recent letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC):
Many of my constituents are concerned about Indian Point. The recent Japan earthquake and nuclear power plant radiation leaks have caused many people to question what would happen if our area experiences an earthquake. Indian Point, like the nuclear power plants in Japan, are located on earthquake faults. Although it is unlikely that we will experience as strong an earthquake as the earthquake in Japan – Indian Point is located very close to NYC.
I do not believe that nuclear power plants should be located near heavily populated areas. I believe that the NRC and other government agencies should carefully review whether we’re prepared. The authorities in Japan reassured residents of Japan that they would be safe if there was an earthquake. They were wrong. Entergy may also be wrong...
A report from Lamont Doherty (Columbia University’s earth observatory) indicates that our region is due for a big earthquake—a 6 or 7 magnitude. Are we prepared?
A response from the NRC was received this week, according to Feiner. It reads, in part:
U.S. reactors are designed to withstand natural events, including earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, based on the specific site where the reactor is located, without loss of capability to perform their safety functions. Moreover, the Commission has directed the NRC staff to establish an agency task force and perform a review of U.S. nuclear plant safety. The task force will conduct both short-term and long-term analyses of the lessons that can be learned from the situation in Japan. The letter can be accessed here in its entirety.
RELICENSING INDIAN POINT
Indian Point supplies up to 30% percent of the electricity used by Westchester County and New York City. Reactors two and three were built in the 1970s and slated for a 40-year-life.
Governor Andrew Cuomo opposes Indian Point’s re-licensing, and he believes the state can make up for its electrical capacity if it is closed. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is in the no-license renewal camp as well.
“Whether or not you support the relicensing of Indian Point, we can all agree that we must answer the health, safety, and environmental questions affecting the nearly 20 million people living in close proximity to the facility, before making any relicensing decisions,” Schneiderman said in a letter to the NRC March 18.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signed off on a scientific review of Indian Point’s renewal. Yet the plant, which sits on the Ramapo fault line and evidently near a second, newly discovered faultline, is one of 27 plants in the country under additional seismic review.
The renewal is in the public comment period, the last phase before the NRC formally acts on Indian Point’s application. Public hearings have yet to be scheduled.
WHERE TO PUT SPENT FUEL?
Lochbaum, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says U.S. citizens have spent billions of dollars on a proposed repository for spent fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada to isolate irradiated fuel for 10,000 years into the future. This proposal was killed for good with the Federal Budget that passed this month, though the plan officially fell apart last year when the Obama administration, under considerable political pressure from opponents, canceled plans for the nuclear disposal facility. That decision came despite the fact that electric ratepayers have contributed $18 billion toward building the national repository through a special assessment included in their monthly bills, according to a 2010 accounting.
In testimony before the U.S. Senate a few weeks after the accident in Japan, Lochbaum testified,
After being discharged from the reactor core, the irradiated fuel awaits transfer to a federal repository, which does not yet exist. Between those two time periods—when irradiated fuel is treated as a highly hazardous material and nuclear plant owners and the U.S. government undertake expensive and extensive efforts to protect the American public from this material—irradiated fuel sits in temporary spent fuel pools with almost no protection. For unfathomable reasons, irradiated fuel is considered benign after it is taken out of the reactor core and before it is placed in a repository.
Another alternative for storing spent fuel is in what are known as dry casks, concrete bunkers approximately 20 feet high, 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep, with walls and roof areas up to five feet thick. There is some dry cask storage at Indian Point. Spent fuel rods are placed in a steel canister capable of holding 32 fuel assemblies and the lid is welded in place. The canisters weigh up to 40 tons fully loaded. The loading procedure generally occurs under water.
Says Lochbaum, “It’s not widely known, but there was irradiated fuel stored in dry casks at Fukushima. While the irradiated fuel in the reactor cores on Units 1, 2, and 3 overheated and failed and the irridiated fuel in the spent fuel pools on Units 3 and 4 overheated and failed, the irradiated fuel in the dry casks came through unscathed.”
Clay Turnbull, director of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Power, says it costs plant owners about $1 million per dry cask. “It’s a lot of money to move them around. If you need 50 casks, that’s $50 million at least,” Turnbull said, adding that nuclear plants operate on a tight profit margin so any additional costs are a disincentive.
But The NRC says that irradiated fuel is as safe in spent fuel pools as in dry casks. “Let me begin by saying public health and safety is protected by the safety and security features associated with storage of spent fuel in either pools or casks,” said Diane Screnci, an NRC spokeswoman.
“The NRC, after careful study of the safety and security issues, concluded that fuel is safely stored in wet pools or dry storage casks. There is no justification, from a safety or security viewpoint, for removing fuel from pools and loading it into casks in order to return to low density racking,” Screnci said.
The details of the NRC’s studies on storage pools are not available to the public due to national security concerns.
A nuclear reactor is surrounded by six to nine inches of steel, and sits within a containment dome some three to four feet thick. But a spent fuel storage pool at a pressurized water reactor, like Indian Point, Millstone in Connecticut and Salem in New Jersey, is located outside the containment dome and housed in a traditional steel industrial building.
At a boiling water reactor, like Fukushima Daiichi in Japan and, the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant in Toms River, N.J., the pool is several stories above ground level, within the containment dome.
Nationally, the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants are now storing some 63,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods, according to 2010 numbers compiled by the Nuclear Energy Institute. Indian Point is storing at least 903 metric tons of spent fuel.