Nuclear Safety Engineer
Union of Concerned Scientists
1707 H Street NW Suite 600
Washington, DC 20006-3962
(202) 223-6133 x113 (202) 223-6162 fax
June 18, 2002
The Second Biggest Mistake
The United States currently has 103 operating nuclear power reactors. These reactors are so hazardous that their owners cannot go to Lloyds of London or All-State to get liability insurance. No private insurance company could underwrite such a large risk without requiring a very high annual premium.
Plant owners could not afford to pay that premium, so the Price-Anderson Act was enacted in 1957 to provide Federal liability protection for the nuclear industry.
To manage the risk, reactors have safety systems and backup safety systems. Literally hundreds of 'what-if' scenarios are explored by computer modeling to test the thoroughness of these safety features. For example, what if the control rods are accidentally inserted into the core when they are not needed and what if the control rods fail to insert when they are needed. The reactor safety studies for just one reactor contain more pages than the collected works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Hemingway, although they are not quite as interesting.
Earlier this year, President Bush recommended to the US Congress that the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada be used for the permanent storage of spent fuel produced by US nuclear power reactors. This spent fuel is so hazardous that it must be isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years into the future. No private company can assume such a long-term protection burden, so the Nuclear Waste Act was enacted in 1982 to provide Federal protection.
To select a permanent waste site, literally billions of dollars were spent analyzing the Yucca Mountain site. Government officials have proclaimed that we know more about the past and expected future of that location than of any other piece of land in the United States. The amount of paperwork produced thus far regarding the Yucca Mountain site is estimated to be over one million pages. Oddly enough, irradiated fuel that is incredibly hazardous when it is in the reactors and incredibly hazardous when it is permanently stored is benign between those endpoints. At least that would be the impression one gets from reviewing all the safety studies not performed for spent fuel stored at reactor sites.
In the reactor, irradiated fuel is protected by multiple safety systems. Operators receive initial training and frequent retraining on how to monitor the automatic functioning of these systems and take remedial actions when required. Over 300 force-on-force exercises have tested the ability of the plant's guards to defend the reactor from simulated sabotage attacks. In the spent fuel pool, irradiated fuel is seldom protected by even one safety system. Operators receive little training on the procedures to be used if the manual cooling systems malfunction. No-repeat, no-force-on-force exercises have tested how well spent fuel is protected from simulated sabotage.
Why is hazard from onsite spent fuel storage so overlooked? In my opinion, it is because onsite spent fuel storage was intended for only a short duration. The first US reactors were built with small spent fuel pools designed to temporarily store irradiated fuel for a few months up to a year until it was shipped offsite for reprocessing. When the United States stopped reprocessing commercial nuclear fuel in the late 1970s due to proliferation concerns, it was assumed that the irradiated fuel would soon be shipped offsite for permanent disposal instead of reprocessing.
Today, there are nearly 45,000 tons of spent fuel sitting at nuclear power reactor sites across America. It is a hazard just as it is when it is in the reactors or if it gets buried in Yucca Mountain. Yet it has received too little attention to assure that it is adequately safe and secure. Few 'what-if' scenarios have not been postulated and examined to ensure that appropriate safety systems are installed to mitigate the risk. No physical protection measures have been tested to ensure that adequate security has been provided. Onsite spent fuel storage remains a hazard that is improperly managed.
Building and operating a nuclear power reactor without also providing a safe and secure place for the spent fuel it generates is the second biggest mistake.
What is the biggest mistake? Building a nuclear power reactor without also providing transmission lines for the electricity it generates. The nuclear industry, which often asserts that safety is its top priority, was somehow able to avoid making the biggest mistake but not the second biggest mistake. If safety were indeed a priority, neither mistake would have been made.
Nuclear Safety Engineer