But their draft, unfortunately, suffers from a glaring omission: It fails to improve waste management practices at nuclear power plants across the country. Even under the rosiest scenario, it will take years to site and build an interim storage facility. In the meantime, ever-growing quantities of nuclear waste will remain at nuclear plants for a long time.
Why is that a problem? Plant owners—who never expected to have to deal with large amounts of radioactive waste on site—are not storing it as safely as they should or could. The blue ribbon commission failed to address this critical issue in its final report, and if the senators stick strictly to the commission’s recommendations, their legislation will do little or nothing to lessen this threat to public safety.
More than 30 years ago, nuclear plant owners and the Department of Energy (DOE) struck a deal. The owners agreed to pay into what’s called the Nuclear Waste Fund to help finance DOE construction of a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste by 1998. Fifteen years later there is still no repository, and the DOE has had to pay plant owners millions in damages for breach of contract. Meanwhile, 70,000 metric tons of radioactive nuclear waste — the used, or “spent,” nuclear fuel — is building up at plant sites around the country, and nearly 75 percent of it is sitting in overcrowded cooling pools.
What’s so bad about the cooling pools? They lack diverse emergency cooling and water makeup systems and most are not located within robust containment structures. They also rely on electricity, and are thus vulnerable to events leading to power loss, such as flooding and seismic activity, or to terrorist strikes that cause a loss of water from the pool. Loss of cooling could result in fuel damage and a potentially massive radiological release. Such a scenario was a main concern during the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, where the facility’s cooling systems failed due to lack of power.
The high density of fuel in the pools is also a concern. More spent fuel in pools increases the heat load and reduces the response time necessary to address problems. Storing less radioactive material in the pools would mean a smaller radiological release in the event of an accident.
Fortunately there is a more sensible, safer solution: transfer the spent fuel rods to cement and steel casks. Unlike the pools, dry casks are cooled by a “passive” air system that doesn’t require electricity to operate. A case in point is Fukushima: The safety of the spent fuel stored in the facility’s dry casks was never in doubt during the accident.
In any case, the spent fuel has to wind up in casks to ship it to an interim site or a permanent geologic repository. So why not move the fuel into casks now to better protect nearby communities? Given that spent fuel is cool enough to move out of pools after five years, more than 80 percent of what is currently sitting in pools could be put in dry casks today.
The April 25 press release announcing the draft legislation alluded to the threat posed by “earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters” to spent fuel stored on-site at commercial nuclear power plants. Yes, natural disasters are indeed a threat, as are terrorism and plain old human error. That’s why — while we’re waiting for an interim storage facility — the federal government has to insist that plant owners thin out their overstuffed cooling pools to better protect the 120 million Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor.
Lochbaum is the director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Cowin is a senior UCS legislative analyst.