This story was produced by InvestigateNY, a content-sharing partner of City Limits. It was written in collaboration with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. To read a full version, go here.
The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex that was damaged in Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami has faded from the front pages. But even as the troubled reactors are brought under control, another problem persists: Three of seven damaged cooling pools that store spent fuel rods are still emitting radiation there. The spent fuel rods, exposed to the air, released large amounts of radiation after the tsunami knocked out the cooling system; it is a graphic example of the risks inherent in onsite spent-fuel storage.
It is a storage method replicated at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York, which sits on the Ramapo Fault line and is the focus of much concern. Cooling pools for spent fuel are also used at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station near New London, Ct., Salem Nuclear Power Plant in South Jersey, and Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Tom’s River, N.J., a plant with the same design as Fukushima. And it’s a storage method some scientists want banned in the United States.
Spent fuel a risk
Nuclear reactors use fuel rods made of uranium pellets. These rods are inserted into a reactor core and subjected to processes that induce nuclear fission, or the splitting of atoms. Fission releases energy in the form of heat which boils water pumped around the reactor core to cool it. That water turns to steam, which turns turbines and creates electricity. Once a fuel rod has exhausted its use in the reactor, it is removed. But the process of radioactive decay continues inside it. So fuel rods have to be controlled to avoid dangerous radioactive releases. At places like Indian Point, the control strategy involves pools of water.
A nuclear reactor is surrounded by six to nine inches of steel, and sits within a containment dome some three to four feet thick. At a boiling water reactor, like Fukushima Daiichi in Japan and, the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant in Toms River, N.J., the pool is several stories above ground level, within the containment dome. But a spent fuel storage pool at a pressurized water reactor, like Indian Point, Millstone in Connecticut and Salem in New Jersey, is located outside the containment dome and housed in a traditional steel industrial building.
“At Indian Point and reactor sites across the U.S., spent fuel is stored in poorly protected, poorly defended locations,” says David Lochbaum with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That translates into elevated and undue risk.”
Entergy, the company that owns Indian Point, declined to comment, referring a reporter to its website. The site includes a letter to the public by J. Wayne Leonard, the company’s chairman and CEO, in which he says Indian Point “is safe—designed with a margin of safety beyond the strongest earthquake anticipated in the area.” Leonard adds that, “In light of the accident at Fukushima, we will of course be reviewing our procedures, training and equipment,” but concludes: “In sum, at Indian Point we have numerous redundant safety systems for dealing with the loss of off-site power as experienced in Japan.”
A national solution, shelved
Nationally, the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants are now storing some 63,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods, according to 2010 numbers compiled by the Nuclear Energy Institute. Indian Point is storing at least 903 metric tons of spent fuel.
As the volume of spent fuel grew over the years, scientists began warning the pools could be more dangerous than the reactor because they now held more radioactive material. U.S. citizens spent billions of dollars on a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada to isolate irradiated fuel for 10,000 years into the future.
But this proposal fell apart last year when the Obama administration, under considerable political pressure from opponents, canceled plans for the nuclear disposal facility. That decision came despite the fact that electric ratepayers have contributed $18 billion toward building the national repository through a special assessment included in their monthly bills, according to a 2010 accounting. The plan was killed for good with the Federal Budget that passed in April.
Without a national storage site, plant operators, with the blessing of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, packed more and more spent fuel rods into the pools.
An expensive alternative
With Yucca Mountain off the table, another alternative for storing spent fuel is in what are known as dry casks, concrete bunkers approximately 20 feet high, 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep, with walls and roof areas up to five feet thick. Spent fuel rods are placed in a steel canister capable of holding 32 fuel assemblies and the lid is welded in place. The canisters weigh up to 40 tons fully loaded. The loading procedure occurs under water.
Says Lochbaum, “It’s not widely known, but there was irradiated fuel stored in dry casks at Fukushima. While the irradiated fuel in the reactor cores on Units 1, 2, and 3 overheated and failed and the irradiated fuel in the spent fuel pools on Units 3 and 4 overheated and failed, the irradiated fuel in the dry casks came through unscathed.”
Clay Turnbull, director of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Power, says it costs plant owners about $1 million per dry cask. “It’s a lot of money to move them around. If you need 50 casks, that’s $50 million at least,” Turnbull said, adding that nuclear plants operate on a tight profit margin so any additional costs are a disincentive.
Power plant officials insist that economics has nothing to do with fuel remaining in wet storage for so long. “When we opened, the expectation was the fuel would be taken in 25 years and reprocessed,” says Ken Holt, a spokesman at Millstone. “We were not that big. We never thought we would have to contain fuel for the full life of the plant,” Holt said.
Still, Holt acknowledged cost is an issue. “Both are safe. But there is a cost element to dry cask and it is a fairly heavy cost and a major factor in why we have not pulled fuel sooner.”
But the NRC says that irradiated fuel is as safe in spent fuel pools as in dry casks. “Public health and safety is protected by the safety and security features associated with storage of spent fuel in either pools or casks,” says Diane Screnci, an NRC spokeswoman.
The details of the NRC’s studies on storage pools are not available to the public due to national security concerns.
Calls for a shutdown
Indian Point supplies up to 30 percent percent of the electricity used by New York City and Westchester County. Reactors two and three were built in the 1970s and were slated for a 40-year-life.
Governor Andrew Cuomo opposes Indian Point’s re-licensing, and he believes the state can make up for its electrical capacity if it is closed, although he has offered few details on how.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signed off on a scientific review of Indian Point’s renewal. The plant, which sits on the Ramapo fault line and evidently near a second, newly discovered faultline, is one of 27 plants in the country under additional seismic review. The renewal is in the public comment period, the last phase before the NRC formally acts on Indian Point’s application. Public hearings have yet to be scheduled.