Pools May be “Adequate,” But Dry Casks are Safer

 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) today released its staff paper evaluating Tier 3 recommendations based on lessons learned from the March 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima.

The paper reiterates the NRC’s position that storing spent nuclear fuel in wet pools at commercial nuclear power plants provides “adequate protection” for public health and safety and the environment. The NRC also stated that it will continue to study spent fuel storage issues for up to five more years.

But “adequate” is not good enough, especially when there is a safer alternative.

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Fission Stories #102: Under Pressure

                          

On April 25, 2012, workers prepared to restart the Fermi Unit 2 reactor in Michigan from a refueling outage. After the top, or “head,” had been placed back on the reactor vessel that houses the reactor core, procedures required operators to perform a hydrostatic pressure test to check that all the parts had been reassembled correctly.

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Lochbaum and Lyman Address NAS on US Response to Fukushima

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is working on a study called “Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security at US Nuclear Plants.” It is currently in the phase of collecting information through public meetings.

Dave Lochbaum and Ed Lyman were part of a small group of people who addressed the NAS panel yesterday. The slides from their presentation are available here.

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Nuclear Books

         

I’ve read that 18th century author Samuel Johnson cautioned against trusting anyone who had written more than he had read.

Johnson’s words kept coming back to me in recent weeks as I was introduced at symposiums and conferences marking the anniversaries of the Fukushima and Three Mile Island accidents. The introductions of other presenters and I invariably included any books we’d authored. While I remain proud of the two books I have authored and was flattered by that recognition, Johnson’s warning suggested that the audiences might have been more interested in the books I had read than the few I had written. In that spirit, here are some of the many books that I have read that I found especially insightful:

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Fission Stories #101: “Watch This”

On April 19, 1995, operators encountered a problem while restarting the boiling water reactor at the Columbia Generating Station in Washington. The control room operator consulted with the shift supervisor about a problem controlling the water level inside the reactor vessel. The problem was not too little water; instead, the water level was getting too high.

After being shut down for a long time, the boiling water reactor’s vessel was filled with cool water far below the boiling point. As the reactor core’s power level increased, the heat it produced warmed up the water. The water expanded, causing the water level inside the reactor vessel to increase even when no additional water was being supplied.

The plant’s procedures sought to control the water level within 6 inches of its desired level. The operator consulted his supervisor as the rising water level approached the upper end of this control region.

“Watch this,” the supervisor reportedly told the operator.

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Fission Stories #100: Diablo Canyon: A Waity Matter

                      

In the summer of 1981, the owners of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California wanted to start up their brand new $4.2 billion plant. But they had to wait a couple more years and spend another $1.6 billion before turning on the switch.

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Fission Stories #99: Seabrook’s Blews

                                   

An emergency exercise was conducted April 17, 2012, at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. Federal regulations require these exercises to be conducted every two years for each nuclear plant. For these exercises the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is onsite to evaluate how well the plant owner performs during the simulated emergency. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is onsite to evaluate how well local, state and federal officials perform.

The exercise simulated an accident involving the large, rapid loss of cooling water for the reactor core. With reactor core meltdown imminent, workers declared a General Emergency, the most serious emergency declaration. This declaration required workers to notify offsite authorities so they could take appropriate steps to protect the public.

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Timing the NRC’s 100-Yard Dash with a Calendar

I recently received a letter from the NRC responding to concerns I’d expressed in writing regarding the slow pace by which the NRC resolves known safety problems at U.S. nuclear power plants. The NRC’s response assured me that is precisely what they do because “Timely resolution of safety issues is important.”

And I believe it. I’ve added the NRC resolving safety issues in a timely manner to my list of beliefs in Big Foot, Elvis being spotted in Burger King in Michigan, Jimmy Hoffa being buried in the end zone at Giants Stadium, the moon being made of green cheese, Santa Claus, the moon landing being faked in a Hollywood studio, the earth being flat, JFK being shot by a Sasquatch from the grassy knoll who then escaped in a UFO, unicorns, and the Easter Bunny.

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Fission Stories #98: Fires at Browns Ferry: Get Your Fiddles Ready

                              Fire damaging electrical cables in metal trays passing through a concrete wall

On March 22, 1975, a worker used a candle to check for air leaks in the room directly beneath the Unit 1 and Unit 2 control rooms at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama.

Electrical cables used to power, control, and monitor equipment throughout the plant passed from panels in the control room through its floor into this room. The cables fanned out from this room, passing through many holes cut through its walls.To protect against radioactivity in the air leaking in through these holes and rising up into the control rooms to threaten the health of the operators, sealing material filled the gaps around the cables where they passed through the walls.

To check for leaks, the worker held the candle as close to the wall penetrations as possible. A steady flame indicated a good seal. A flickering flame meant air was leaking through the penetration.

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Shareholder Resolutions and Nuclear Power Safety

On March 10, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was a multi-billion dollar asset generating significant revenue for Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Japan’s largest utility. A few days later, that asset turned into a multi-billion dollar liability. Since then, the Japanese government has nationalized TEPCO and spent some $44 billion to keep the company operating. Conservative estimates put the total and eventual cost of the Fukushima disaster and its clean-up at over $100 billion.

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