Power Struggle, Part 2: Burning Out On Fuel Rods

By Sean Corcoran

Nov. 22, 2011

pilgrim nuclear power plant

The Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, Mass., currently stores about 3,000 spent fuel rods in a possibly vulnerable pool designed to hold 800 rods. (Courtesy of Entergy)

With the end of its 40-year license approaching in 2012, the owners of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth have applied for a 20-year extension. Opponents question the reactor's safety after three sister reactors in Japan experienced explosions and likely meltdowns this past year. Read part one of our three-part series.

At Pilgrim,
 about 3,000 spent fuel rods now sit in a pool of water designed more than 40 years ago to hold only one-third that amount. In Fukushima, spent rods placed in what's called "dry cask storage" fared well during the disaster and were safe, while some rods in “wet pools” melted down. Politicians and activists want Pilgrim's spent rods placed in dry storage, thereby reducing the risk. But it is expensive, and so far the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not required it.

PLYMOUTH — Mary Lampert stepped down from the dais at Harvard Medical School and reacted to an audience member's assertion that within 5 years there would be a federal repository for spent nuclear fuel.
“Well, I now believe in Santa Claus because the whole thing is going to be resolved in 5 years,” she said. “And maybe the Easter bunny too.”

Mary Lampert
Mary Lampert is the director of the advocacy group Pilgrim Watch. (Courtesy of Pilgrim Watch.)

When the US began building nuclear power plants in the late 1950s, the federal government said it would handle the reactors' waste by transporting it to either a reprocessing plant or an underground repository.
Neither happened. States didn’t want it.
So, with nowhere to go, spent fuel rods are mostly stored in circulating pools of water to keep them cool. They’re kept on-site at 104 reactors across the US, including Pilgrim in Plymouth.
"There is no radioactive waste fairy,” Lampert said. “I don't think you are going to find a lot of people begging to have a deep geologic repository tomorrow. It is going to take a very, very long time. The NRC recognizes this. All grown-ups recognize this."
Lampert is the legal mind behind the anti-nuclear group Pilgrim Watch, which has battled Pilgrim's relicensing for the past 6 years. She was invited to speak when a federal commission came to Harvard in October to discuss what to do with the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.
She said, "There are lots of things that can and should be done, not to mention the big one: spent fuel storage. The way it is stored now is unsafe. Period."
NIMBY goes… nuclear
With no off-site location for the waste, the US nuclear industry is in a bind — and people like nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson say it’s a dangerous one. Gunderson worked at Nuclear Energy Services in Connecticut in the ‘90s, when he blew the whistle on the company for storing radioactive material in an accounting safe. He said the GE Mark 1 reactors were particularly vulnerable to trouble because of where the spent fuel is stored: in what is essentially the reactor building’s attic.
Pilgrim is a Mark 1 reactor, as are five reactors at Fukushima, Japan.
“The roof is exactly like a Sears storage shed or a high school gym,” Gunderson said. “It’s only a metal structure and immediately below that roof is the spent fuel pool.” The roof has, he said, no resistance to earthquake, tornados or aircraft attacks.
He explained that Fukushima 4 had all of its fuel in the spent-fuel pool. So, there was no reactor meltdown — there was no fuel in the reactor to melt. Instead, the reactor exploded thanks to the hydrogen gas that came out of the fuel pool. The NRC ordered a 50-mile evacuation because the Fukushima 4 fuel pool was exposed to the air.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said that Japan’s experience made clear the realistic threats associated with not handling nuclear power safely.
"We have situations like Japan that indicate there are risks involved with the kind of storage that we currently have here in Massachusetts,” she said.
10 pounds of rods in a five-pound bag
Beyond the spent fuel rods’ location, critics say the sheer number of rods is a problem. During Pilgrim's 40 years of operations, its cooling pool has been crammed with more and more spent rods. State Sen. Dan Wolf of the Cape and islands was concerned that Pilgrim’s pool contained three times the number of fuel rods it was originally licensed to hold.
“We really need to ask some tough questions,” he said, “about why a plant that was designed to store 800 rods has been allowed to store, in the same area, up to 3,000 rods. And should this be extended for another 20 years, we are simply going to put more and more spent fuel rods into that storage container."
Pools of water are not the only choice for storing spent fuel rods. In Japan, fuel stored in steel-reinforced, concrete vaults called “dry casks” held up well during the disaster. But NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan said there were risks associated with moving fuel around, and the NRC had no immediate plans to make reactor owners do so.
"Our view,” Sheehan said, “is that spent fuel pool storage is a safe option, as is dry cask storage. We will continue to look at that.”
Some plants, he noted, have been moving to dry cask storage on their own.
A possible consensus on spent fuel rod storage

Lynch on Pilgrim: "We have a very small carbon footprint [and] we are very economical." Also: "We do not believe that a tsunami is a credible event for the East Coast... we are designed for the type or severity of earthquake that we could see here." (10 mins. Right-click to download the mp3)

About two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear power plants, including Seabrook and Vermont Yankee, have some type of dry cask storage. Pilgrim is looking to do the same. In fact, it has to: Its storage pool is so packed with spent fuel rods it's approaching the point where no more will fit.

Pilgrim licensing manager Joseph Lynch said that if the plant is going to continue to operate, some of the spent fuel will have to come out of the pool.
"We are fine right up to where we're licensed, which is to June of 2012,” he said. “But in order for us to go into the 20-years-extended operation, once we receive NRC approval, we would have to rely upon alternative ways of storing fuel. And the dry cask fuel storage is the most logical and safe solution for us.”
For years, the government has collected a tax for the sole purpose of moving spent fuel into a national repository. There's more than $35 billion in that fund now. With no repository in sight, both nuclear power opponents and advocates said that it’s time for the Department of Energy to spend the money, and that dry cask storage would be a good place to start.


In the final part of our series running Nov. 23, we look at radiation monitoring options and how to escape should there be an emergency.

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