Dave Lochbaum

 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.

 David Lochbaum

 Nuclear Safety Engineer

 Washington Office