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NRC Eases Spent Fuel Regulations Days Before Commissioner Starts Job at Nuclear Lobbying Firm

Fukushima water tanks (AP Photo)If you assumed that, with the triple meltdown at Fukushima still unresolved, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency would climb out of the pocket of industry and soberly embrace its role as a safety regulator, you were sadly mistaken.

On August 26, the NRC endorsed the safety of long-term onsite storage of nuclear waste (PDF), either in dry cask storage, or in spent fuel pools, which were originally designed for use over just a few years. This decision says that it is safe to leave spent fuel in these pools for sixty, a hundred, even 120 years! In so doing, it opens the door to licensing of even more waste generating reactors.

Opponents of the endorsement have raised an outcry because one of the commissioners, William D. Magwood, who was in on the vote is leaving the Agency on August 31, and has already accepted a highly paid position working for an agency which promotes the industry he has been regulating.

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency. Under its charter, the NEA actively promotes the use of nuclear energy and the economic interests of its member governments, including governments that own or sponsor U.S. nuclear licensees and applicants.

The vote was originally scheduled to take place in October, after he had made the move and a new Commissioner had taken his place; but it appears as if the date was moved up in order to take advantage of at least one very captive vote.

To understand how outrageous this vote is, it is only necessary to look at the manner in which a spent fuel pool fire at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 caught fire and exploded after its cooling bath was breached, ejecting highly radioactive materials into the atmosphere and surrounding environment.

The real thermal threat of pool storage might last less than a decade, but that is by no means the only manner in which a crowded spent fuel pool represents heightened menace to surrounding communities.  

The shear volume and weight of tons of highly radioactive material stored in this way presents a growing possibility of structural failure and collapse as the years pass by.  

Weather and seismic events; accident or fire, mischief or terrorism; simple human error: there are so many ways in which the limited shielding provided by a spent fuel pool might be breached over the decades that fuel assemblies would be allowed to languish in the pools of long abandoned facilities.

The truly disgusting reality is that this decision by the NRC was a purely pragmatic one. If the NRC would not have come down in favor of indefinite onsite storage, including spent fuel storage, it would have been the end of the nuclear industry because there simply is no alternative.

After over forty years of fevered discussion and false starts, we are no nearer to finding an acceptable place to safely sequester the tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel that already sits at reactor sites across America, let alone any that will be generated in the future.

So, putting on their actuarial caps and weighing the small possibility that something truly catastrophic will happen to one or more of the spent fuel pools (potentially killing thousands) against the loss of their total raison d'etre, the NRC has simply declared the problem non-existent. End of story.

According to the NRC, there were key assumptions used to justify the GEIS (Generic Environmental Impact Study.)

They included, but are not limited to: Institutional controls, including the continued regulation of spent fuel, will continue; spent fuel canisters and casks would be replaced approximately once every 100 years; a dry transfer system will be built at each location for fuel repacking; and all spent fuel will be transferred from spent fuel pools to dry storage no more than 60 years after operations cease.

Except that there are no protocols in place to how the fuel will be "repacked;" and there is no guarantee that nothing will happen to disrupt the "institutional controls" and "continued regulation of spent fuel" over the long term. Those are pretty big assumptions.

Even in the short term, we can't really do much to ensure that Limited Liability companies like Vermont Yankee discharge even their basic obligations, should nuclear fortunes flounder significantly and they choose to simply bail and go bankrupt.

His work to make America safe for the nuclear industry apparently done, Mr. Magwood will move on to his new job at the NEA. His friends back at the NRC will make sure that nothing stands in the way of nuclear industry "progress."  Not even the cold, hard and unforgiving truth.

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