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NRC experts fail to ease concerns over spent fuel

Cape Cod Times

Feb. 26--PLYMOUTH -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent five experts to Plymouth on Monday to offer assurances that the spent fuel from Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station's 46 years of operation would be stored there safely and securely.

Their efforts were unsuccessful, based on questions and comments that followed their presentation to the public and the advisory panel for the plant's decommissioning.

The federal regulators talked about the composition and durability of the heavy dry casks being used to store the radioactive fuel waste, which must bear a certificate of compliance from the NRC.

Casks are made of steel canisters encased in a little more than 2 feet of concrete. Each is filled with 68 spent fuel assemblies and placed on a cement pad outside the plant. Pilgrim's spent fuel pad, off Rocky Hill Road, will have 61 canisters once all the radioactive fuel is removed from a pool where much of it is now cooling.

Currently there is no national repository for storing the fuel, so it will remain in Plymouth until interim storage sites or a permanent site open.

In a PowerPoint presentation, the regulators laid out how casks are periodically inspected, with lids removed and samples taken to determine damage or radiation leakage. A device called an inspection crawler, equipped with cameras, travels along the exterior of the metal canister, where it can pick up every irregularity, they said, right down to a wrinkle in the paint.

Jack Priest, the state Department of Public Health's representative on the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, asked whether every cask was checked or just a sampling and was told a small number are sampled.

Panelists and the public were surprised that the cask certificates of compliance could be renewed and remain valid for up to 80 years.

Duxbury resident James Lampert asked where the oldest casks filled with spent fuel are in the U.S. and was told casks at Surry Power Station in Virginia date back to 1986. "The NRC's database is 34 years old and, on the basis of that, they're saying, 'Let's go 80,'" Lampert said.

Kevin O'Reilly, vice chairman of the advisory panel, asked whether there was a "prescribed fix for a defective cask."

John McKirgan, branch chief for Nuclear Safety and Security, said that situation has not yet arisen in the U.S. If there is a problem, the NRC does not tell the plant owner how to fix it, but it does require the plant owner "to bring the cask back into compliance," he said.

Security was a big concern among panel members and the public. Federal regulators said the casks are "hardened" targets, meaning they are difficult to penetrate.

"It's not a site you would easily breach or attack," one NRC member said.

NRC representatives said guards around the fuel storage pad would be equipped with the latest weapons.

Sean Mullin, chairman of the citizens advisory panel, remained unconvinced. "I have a great deal of concern about security," he said. "No amount of automatic weapons or fences with razor wire is going to work."

Fellow committee member Daniel Wolf questioned the reason for all the armed guards "if the fuel is so securely stored."

Darrell Dunn, NRC's senior materials engineer, said the armed guards were to discourage would-be attackers.

To a second question from Wolf, a former state senator, the NRC conceded there were no limitations on airspace over the site.

A longtime plant watchdog argued that the possibility of a terrorist attack was not being adequately addressed.

"The U.S. government has warned the threat of terrorism is real," said Mary Lampert, president of Pilgrim Watch. "Military weapons available today can penetrate the canisters and the concrete, and they can be shot from a mile and a half away."

Lampert said Holtec would win some goodwill from the public by pledging to protect the fuel casks with a gravel and earthen berm, "which is literally dirt cheap," and to maintain cybersecurity at the site even though the reactor is no longer operating.

Diane Turco, president of the anti-nuclear group Cape Downwinders, was also critical of the NRC's presentation "that all was going well in the nuclear waste world."

"It was more than disturbing to hear the NRC staff sugarcoat their presentation about nuclear waste storage at Pilgrim," Turco said after the meeting. "They reinforced the NRC's inability to honestly address real safety issues."

A written comment from Pilgrim Watch said: "Although the NRC came to Plymouth to assure us that NRC's regulations and oversight guarantee spent fuel stored in dry casks here is perfectly safe today and will remain so into the distant future, they failed."

Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT.


(c)2020 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 28, 2020 4:26 pm GMT


"Irrational Concerns About Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Persist in 2020", would present a more reasoned perspective.

"It was more than disturbing to hear the NRC staff sugarcoat their presentation about nuclear waste storage at Pilgrim," Turco said after the meeting. "They reinforced the NRC's inability to honestly address real safety issues."

No Diane, it reinforced your inability to overcome fears based in sci-fi horror movies. You either hear "sugarcoating", or the cognitive dissonance of learning you've been wrong about something about which you were absolutely, positively, certain you were right.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Feb 28, 2020 3:37 am GMT

Sounds like they asked good questions and didn't get answers, e.g. Are all casks inspected? What do they do if they fail conformance tests? How did they  conclude they are good for 80 years if a sample is good at 34 years? 
There may be good answers to these and other questions. But the point is that the NRC is not trusted by ordinary people, way beyond fringe groups. And for good reason.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 28, 2020 4:25 pm GMT

What do you think would happen if one of those canisters tipped over and broke open, Mark? Here's what would happen: plant maintenance workers would don protective gear and clean it up. If the break was something that could be repaired, the canister would be repaired and the fuel assemblies would be loaded back into it again. And life goes on.

"Since the first casks were loaded in 1986, dry storage has released no radiation that affected the public or contaminated the environment. There have been no known or suspected attempts to sabotage cask storage facilities. Tests on spent fuel and cask components after years in dry storage confirm that the systems are providing safe and secure storage. The NRC also analyzed the risks from loading and storing spent fuel in dry casks. That study found the potential health risks are very small."

The information is easy to find online for those who really want to know. Those who remain distrustful or consumed by fear might be helped by counseling / medication.

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