Report highlights

Several highlights of the National Academy of Sciences’ report on the safety and security of nuclear waste stored at nuclear-power plants

• Spent-fuel pools are necessary at all operating nuclear power plants to store recently discharged fuel.

• The committee judges that successful terrorist attacks on spent-fuel pools, though difficult, are possible.

• If an attack causes the spent fuel to catch fire, it could result in the release of large amounts of radioactive material.

• Dry cask storage has inherent security advantages over spent-fuel pool storage, but it can be used only to store older spent fuel.

• It would be difficult for terrorists to steal enough spent fuel from storage facilities for use in significant radiological dispersal devices (dirty bombs).

Source: The National Academies of Sciences’ “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report.”

Nuclear waste, including material at the Indian Point plants in Buchanan, may be vulnerable to terrorist attacks and a massive release of radiation, according to a report released yesterday by an independent group of nuclear experts.

“The committee finds that, under some conditions, a terrorist attack that partially or completely drained a spent fuel pool could lead to a … fire and the release of large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment,” according to the 10-page congressional summary included in the National Academy of Sciences’ report on the safety of nuclear waste.

The “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report” calls for a plant-by-plant examination of the pools where spent fuel is stored.

The experts said terrorists could cause an intense, radiation-releasing fire if they managed to drain a pool. The panel of scientists, engineers and physicists concluded federal regulators and the industry haven’t comprehended the dangers and consequences of such an attack, which can be understood only by examining the situation at each plant.

A federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman said yesterday that the agency generally agreed with the academy’s recommendations and how to address them. But in a statement, the agency said it considered spent-fuel pools “well protected by physical barriers, armed guards, intrusion detection systems, area surveillance systems, access controls, and access authorization requirements for employees working inside the plants.”

Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, Indian Point’s owner, said “nothing is absolutely impossible,” referring to an attack on the spent-fuel pools. But Entergy, he said, is confident in, and residents should be comfortable with, Indian Point’s many safety features.

“Clearly, if the NRC orders us to do something, we’ll do it,” he said.

Critics of the nuclear-power plants on the Hudson River said the independent report was highly damaging to the industry and should cause everyone concerned about terrorism — Congress, the NRC, the Department of Homeland Security — to take notice.

“It basically supports exactly what we have been saying all along,” said Lisa Rainwater of Riverkeeper. “The spent-fuel pools at Indian Point are a soft target, a vulnerable target.”

The findings publicized yesterday were part of a classified study the academy issued in July. Since then, the NRC and the academy have been wrangling over what to include in the public version of the report for fear it could become a terrorism manual. Members of Congress and advocacy groups in recent weeks had criticized the delay.

“I’m glad that after so many months, the public finally has the opportunity to review this study,” Rep. Nita Lowey, D-Harrison, said in a statement. Last week, Lowey urged NRC Chairman Nils Diaz to make the study public.

“Public safety officers need to know about every risk at our nuclear facilities, and the public deserves information about the steps being taken to protect our families,” she said. “This report makes clear that more can be done to minimize risks associated with spent fuel storage, and I’m concerned that the NRC has not done the analysis needed to ensure that we safeguard all nuclear materials.”

The 114-page report presents scientific and technical advice on the storage of spent fuel at nuclear plants nationwide. Part of the debate involves whether the NRC should favor depositing used fuel in steel-and-concrete casks or hardening security measures around spent-fuel pools. Loss of water in the pools would expose the fuel to air and allow it to heat up and catch fire. That could lead to a greater, more dangerous meltdown.

Casks are less vulnerable to an attack but expensive to build, the committee said. NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said some of the scenarios presented in the report were unreasonable, but the agency had no major disagreements with the document.

“They do a good job themselves of pointing out this comes down to cost assessment,” he said. “There are finite resources in any society.”

The spent-fuel pools have been criticized as potential terrorist targets since Sept. 11, 2001. An NRC study that year concluded a loss of the water in the pools could result in a fuel fire that could spread contamination up to 500 miles. The classified version of yesterday’s report includes details on how a terrorist attack, either by crashing an aircraft or using explosives, could drain a pool, causing a fire and massive release of radiation.

While the pools are needed to house newly discharged, hotter fuel, transferring the fuel to casks sooner would divide the matter among separate containers, the committee said, making attacks more difficult and lessening their consequences.

Typically, nuclear-plant operators use casks only when pools run out of space, not just to reduce the amount of fuel held in the pools. Indian Point now uses spent-fuel pools but is planning to add dry casks to the property by the end of the year. The spent-fuel pools hold more radioactive material than the reactors themselves. At Indian Point, the two active reactors hold about 145 tons of uranium fuel, arranged in 193 bundles called assemblies. The pools hold about 2,000 fuel assemblies.

The report urged the NRC to require nuclear companies to redistribute the fuel in their pools so hotter fuel would be interspersed among cooler, older fuel. That would limit the intensity of any fire. It also suggested installing water spray systems to cool fuel, should a pool lose water.

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