NRC Staff Rejects Concerns About Nuclear Reactor Vulnerability to Terrorism

An aerial view of the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, a nuclear power plant in Delta, Pa., in March 2011. NRC staff is rejecting concerns that spent-fuel pools at such plants are vulnerable to terrorism attacks.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Nov. 20, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion staffers are re­ject­ing the con­cerns of law­makers, state of­fi­cials and watch­dog groups who say nuc­le­ar waste tightly packed in spent-fuel pools at U.S. power plants is vul­ner­able to ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

In re­cent months, law­makers and act­iv­ists have been push­ing NRC of­fi­cials to ad­dress con­cerns that the spent-fuel pools — many of which are cur­rently filled bey­ond their ori­gin­ally in­ten­ded ca­pa­city — are at risk of caus­ing a cata­stroph­ic fire. If an act of ter­ror­ism or nature caused wa­ter in the pools to drain, a fire could en­sue and ra­di­ation could be dis­persed throughout the sur­round­ing area, they say.

The crit­ics have urged the com­mis­sion to re­quire plant op­er­at­ors to move spent fuel rods in­to dry cask stor­age as soon as the rods com­plete a ne­ces­sary five-year cool­ing-off peri­od in the pools.

In a memo made pub­lic on Monday, NRC staff con­cludes, however, “that the ex­ped­ited trans­fer of spent fuel to dry cask stor­age would provide only a minor or lim­ited safety be­ne­fit “¦ and that its ex­pec­ted im­ple­ment­a­tion costs would not be war­ran­ted.”

The Nov. 12 doc­u­ment re­com­mends “that ad­di­tion­al stud­ies and fur­ther reg­u­lat­ory ana­lyses of this is­sue not be pur­sued,” and that the is­sue — one of sev­er­al that the com­mis­sion is re­view­ing in light of the Fukushi­ma dis­aster in Ja­pan — “be closed.”

The five-mem­ber, pres­id­en­tially ap­poin­ted com­mis­sion has yet to act on the staff memo, which mem­bers of the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee are ex­pec­ted to scru­tin­ize dur­ing a Cap­it­ol Hill hear­ing on Thursday. The five com­mis­sion­ers will testi­fy at the hear­ing, to be chaired by Sen­at­or Bar­bara Box­er (D-Cal­if.).

The memo re­leased this week re­lies in part on a study that NRC staff con­duc­ted this year re­gard­ing the im­pacts a ma­jor earth­quake could have on aging U.S. re­act­ors built us­ing the same Gen­er­al Elec­tric design as the Fukushi­ma plant. Law­makers, state of­fi­cials and watch­dog groups have ar­gued that the study of the so-called “Mark I” design is flawed.

Sen­at­or Ed­ward Mar­key (D-Mass.) in a Sept. 17 let­ter called the study “biased, in­ac­cur­ate and at odds with the con­clu­sions of oth­er sci­entif­ic ex­perts — in­clud­ing those ex­pressed in a peer-re­viewed art­icle that was co-au­thored” by cur­rent NRC Chair­wo­man Al­lis­on Mac­far­lane in 2003 and a sep­ar­ate study com­pleted by the Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences in 2004.

Mar­key said that at Mark I and sim­il­ar Mark II re­act­ors, “spent fuel pools are loc­ated at the top re­act­or build­ing and thus are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­able to ter­ror­ist at­tacks or nat­ur­al haz­ards.” He raised con­cerns that the Pil­grim Nuc­le­ar Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion in Mas­sachu­setts “was ori­gin­ally li­censed to hold about 880 spent fuel as­sem­blies in its spent fuel pool, but cur­rently holds about 4,000.”

Ac­cord­ing to Mar­key, “the more densely these fuel as­sem­blies are packed in­to a spent fuel pool” the more likely it is they “could spon­tan­eously ig­nite and “¦ re­lease massive quant­it­ies of ra­di­ation in­to the en­vir­on­ment.”

The Mas­sachu­setts sen­at­or charges that rather than study the is­sue “anew,” NRC staff was charged with con­firm­ing the agency’s past con­clu­sion that spent fuel pools are safe. “In oth­er words, the NRC had already reached its con­clu­sion be­fore the study was ever be­gun,” Mar­key said.

In the sen­at­or’s view, the study con­sidered only the like­li­hood of a severe earth­quake and not a ter­ror­ist at­tack. It also weighed only the pos­sib­il­ity of total wa­ter loss in spent fuel pools and not par­tial loss, his let­ter said. The as­sess­ment ad­di­tion­ally “failed to mod­el the pos­sib­il­ity that a hy­dro­gen ex­plo­sion like those that oc­curred at Fukushi­ma could gen­er­ate debris in the spent fuel pool that im­peded cool­ing,” Mar­key wrote.

Moreover, the new study did not prop­erly ad­dress the be­ne­fits of switch­ing from cur­rently used “high-dens­ity” spent fuel con­fig­ur­a­tions to the “low-dens­ity” ap­proach that crit­ics are ad­voc­at­ing, Mar­key ar­gued. NRC staff simply com­pared a scen­ario in which a high-dens­ity spent fuel rack was less full than one that was filled to ca­pa­city, he said, ar­guing that the study in­stead should have com­pared the cur­rent scen­ario to one in which low-dens­ity racks are used, Mar­key said.

Crit­ics ar­gue that low-dens­ity racks — which were used in U.S. re­act­ors pri­or to NRC ap­prov­ing the high-dens­ity ver­sions — im­prove the flow of wa­ter between spent fuel rods and im­prove the over­all safety of the pools. In an Au­gust cri­tique of the NRC study, Gor­don Thompson, an en­gin­eer and seni­or re­search sci­ent­ist at Clark Uni­versity, backed this view.

“NRC mis­uses the phrase “˜low dens­ity’ in or­der to cre­ate a false im­pres­sion of the study’s scope,” Thompson said. “This pre­tense re­flects pre-de­term­ined con­clu­sions based on a “˜feel­ing.’”

Thompson’s cri­tique was sub­mit­ted to NRC staff by Di­ane Cur­ran, a law­yer who rep­res­en­ted sev­er­al watch­dog groups in suc­cess­ful lit­ig­a­tion against the com­mis­sion re­gard­ing its so-called “waste con­fid­ence” rule.

The suit, filed with sev­er­al state gov­ern­ments, promp­ted a fed­er­al court find­ing that the com­mis­sion had de­term­ined it was con­fid­ent re­act­or waste would even­tu­ally be safely dis­posed in an un­der­ground re­pos­it­ory without con­sid­er­ing the pro­spect of spent fuel pool fires in the in­ter­im. It also failed to ad­equately con­sider the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s can­cela­tion of the Yucca Moun­tain re­pos­it­ory pro­ject in Nevada, the court said.

Mary Lampert of the Mas­sachu­setts-based watch­dog group Pil­grim Watch told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire that crit­ics would con­tin­ue to press the com­mis­sion on the spent fuel pool is­sue as it re­vises the waste-con­fid­ence rule in re­sponse to the court rul­ing. The com­mis­sion is ac­cept­ing pub­lic com­ment on the new draft rule through Dec. 20 and will keep all re­act­or li­cens­ing de­cisions on hold un­til the new rule is fi­nal­ized.

NRC staff, in an Oc­to­ber re­sponse to crit­ics, de­fen­ded the study, in­clud­ing the com­plaint that the re­view was lim­ited to the pro­spect of severe earth­quakes. The study “fo­cused on an earth­quake be­cause it is the event shown by past stud­ies to dom­in­ate spent fuel pool risk,” the NRC re­sponse states. Fol­low­ing the Septem­ber 2001 ter­ror­ist at­tacks on New York and Wash­ing­ton, NRC staff com­pleted sep­ar­ate, clas­si­fied stud­ies on the pro­spect of ter­ror­ism at­tacks, ac­cord­ing to the agency.

In ad­di­tion, in the Nov. 12 memo, NRC staff con­ten­ded that it had ad­dressed the crit­ics con­cerns by us­ing “con­ser­vat­ive as­sump­tions” in its ana­lys­is.

The nuc­le­ar power in­dustry, mean­while, has praised the NRC study and de­fen­ded the safety of spent fuel pools.

“The stor­age pools at Fukushi­ma sur­vived the fourth-largest earth­quake in re­cor­ded his­tory, hy­dro­gen ex­plo­sions that blew the roofs of three of the re­act­or build­ings and the debris res­ult­ing from those ex­plo­sions,” Steven Kraft, seni­or tech­nic­al ad­viser for the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute said in an Oct. 9 state­ment. “All ac­counts from Ja­pan tell us that the fuel in those pools sur­vived with min­im­al if any dam­age.”

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