Forbes energy blogger William Pentland has drawn attention this week to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the near- and medium-term future of nuclear waste storage policy.
The report, "Spent Nuclear Fuel: Accumulating Quantities at Commercial Reactors Present Storage and Other Challenges," projects that the quantity of spent nuclear fuel stored at reactor sites (rather in permanent centralized repositories) will likely double by 2040, from 70 metric tons in 33 states to 140 metric tons. The quantity in temporary storage is equivalent to a block with the area of a football field and 17 meters deep.
Three things can be said about that, right off: (1) Contrary to one's likely first impression, a brick the size of a football field and 17 meters deep is actually not a large quantity in terms of physical volume; it can be easily visualized, which would not be true, for example, of the gigantic volumes of waste generated in coal mining, coal preparation, and coal combustion. (2) That compact volume contains a gigantic quantity of radiation, an amount constantly changing as new spent fuel is added and radioactive materials decay. (3) Given the small quantity but huge radioactivity of the spent fuel, there's no excuse for not handling it in the most responsible possible manner.
Of the existing spent fuel, about three quarters is in cooling ponds, while the remaining quarter has been transferred to much more secure dry casks, according to the GAO. The standing position of U.S. nuclear regulators has been that storage in pools is safe enough. But that position has run into considerable skepticism following the fire that broke out last in a spent fuel storage pond at Fukushima (photo), when the water level in the pool dropped and spent fuel rods overheated. A U.S. Appeals Court has ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take a much closer second look at temporary nuclear waste storage.
The GAO is agnostic on the question of whether the benefits of accelerating transfer of spent fuel out of ponds into dry cask storage would outweigh risks associated with movement of the wastes. As it tried to look into the matter, however, it found relevant documentation distressingly difficult to locate. "Because a decision on a permanent means of disposing of spent fuel may not be made for years, NRC officials and others may need to make interim decisions, which could be informed by past studies on stored spent fuel. In response to GAO requests, however, NRC could not easily identify, locate, or access studies it had conducted or commissioned because it does not have an agency-wide mechanism to ensure that it can identify and locate such classified studies. As a result, GAO had to take a number of steps to identify pertinent studies, including interviewing numerous officials."
The GAO has advised the NRC to get its documentation in order, and the NRC has accepted that suggestion. My suggestion is that we immediately accelerate transfer of spent fuel from wet to dry storage. The Fukushima fire showed that the risk of a catastrophic mishap in a spent fuel pond is not zero. The United States is and will remain for a long time to come under terrorist threat. A terrorist attack on a spent fuel pond could induce an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions.
Surely a strong U.S. president in good standing could just order a change in policy and get the job done.
Correction (9/24/12): Two readers have complained about my characterization of what happened in the Reactor 4 spent fuel pond at Fukushima, where over a period of days helicopters dropped water and firefighters sprayed water to prevent rods from being exposed and fire from breaking out. Reports as to just what was going on at the time were confused and confusing, and an impression has lingered rather widely, as one recent seemingly well-informed article reveals, that a fire actually occurred. But in fact the readers are right, and I stand corrected; no such fire occurred.
Eliza Strickland, who handled much of IEEE Spectrum's day-to-day and post-mortem coverage of Fukushima explains as follows:
“There was a lot of confusion about the status of the spent fuel pool in reactor #4. There was an explosion in reactor building #4—there was some structural damage to the building and the rods were jostled around. And then there was a lot of worry and speculation that the rods in the pool were uncovered, and there was indeed spraying and that silly helicopter business (although the targets for all that were both the cores and the pools). But subsequent investigation revealed that the rods were never uncovered, that they never caught fire and never posed a threat.”
Nevertheless, I would still add, the situation at Unit #4 vividly brought home the risks attendant to long-term storage of excessive quantities of spent fuel in ponds.