Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States

Because of the unavailability of off-site storage for spent power-reactor fuel, the NRC has allowed high-density storage of spent fuel in pools originally designed to hold much smaller inventories. As a result, virtually all U.S. spent-fuel pools have been re-racked to hold spent-fuel assemblies at densities that approach those in reactor cores. In order to prevent the spent fuel from going critical, the fuel assemblies are partitioned off from each other in metal boxes whose walls contain neutron-absorbing boron. It has been known for more than two decades that, in case of a loss of water in the pool, convective air cooling would be relatively ineffective in such a “dense-packed” pool. Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly to temperatures at which the zircaloy fuel cladding could catch fire and the fuel’s volatile fission products, including 30-year half-life 137Cs, would be released. The fire could well spread to older spent fuel. The long-term land-contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than those from Chernobyl.

No such event has occurred thus far. However, the consequences would affect such a large area that alternatives to dense-pack storage must be examined—especially in the context of concerns that terrorists might find nuclear facilities attractive targets. To reduce both the consequences and probability of a spent-fuel-pool fire, it is proposed that all spent fuel be transferred from wet to dry storage within five years of discharge. The cost of on-site dry-cask storage for an additional 35,000 tons of older spent fuel is estimated at $3.5–7 billion dollars or 0.03–0.06 cents per kilowatt-hour generated from that fuel. Later cost savings could offset some of this cost when the fuel is shipped off site. The transfer to dry storage could be accomplished within a decade. The removal of the older fuel would reduce the average inventory of 137Cs in the pools by about a factor of four, bringing it down to about twice that in a reactor core. It would also make possible a return to open-rack storage for the remaining more recently discharged fuel. If accompanied by the installation of large emergency doors or blowers to provide largescale airflow through the buildings housing the pools, natural convection air cooling of this spent fuel should be possible if airflow has not been blocked by collapse of the building or other cause. Other possible risk-reduction measures are also discussed.

Our purpose in writing this article is to make this problem accessible to a broader audience than has been considering it, with the goal of encouraging further public discussion and analysis. More detailed technical discussions of scenarios that could result in loss-of-coolant from spent-fuel pools and of the likelihood of spent-fuel fires resulting are available in published reports prepared for the NRC over the past two decades. Although it may be necessary to keep some specific vulnerabilities confidential, we believe that a generic discussion of the type presented here can and must be made available so that interested experts and the concerned public can hold the NRC, nuclear-power-plant operators, and independent policy analysts such as ourselves accountable.

Co-authored by:

  • Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar, Institute for Policy Studies
  • Jan Beyea, Consulting in the Public Interest
  • Klaus Janberg, Ratinger, Germany
  • Jungmin Kang, Seoul, South Korea
  • Ed Lyman, Nuclear Control Institute
  • Allison Macfarlane, Security Studies Program, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Gordon Thompson, Institute for Resource and Security Studies
  • Frank N. von Hippel, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University