Experts: NRC Should Ignore Staff And Follow Chair’s 2003 Call To Curb Risk Of Nuclear Reactor Pool Fire Catastrophe
Cutting Corners for Uncompetitive U.S. Nuclear Industry? Nuclear Regulatory Commission Draft Staff Report Urges Action Directly Contradictory to 2003 Paper by Chair Macfarlane; Reactor Fire Danger Far Greater Than Meltdown, Could Displace 4 Million Americans.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 2, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — A pending Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff recommendation that the beleaguered U.S. nuclear power industry should be allowed to continue packing already high-density fuel reactor pools should be rejected in favor of the safer approach of “dry” cask storage embraced in a 2003 paper by then MIT researcher Allison Macfarlane, who is now chair of the NRC. Two of her coauthors of the 2003 paper are urging the NRC to scrap an inadequate draft study of the spent-fuel storage issue and to go back to the drawing board.
That was the call today from Macfarlane’s 2003 report co-authors: Dr. Gordon R. Thompson and Robert Alvarez. Dr. Thompson is executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, MA. He also serves as a senior research scientist at the George Perkins Marsh Institute, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts. Alvarez is senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he is focused on nuclear disarmament, environmental, and energy policies. From 1993 to 1999, Alvarez served as a senior policy advisor to the Secretary of Energy and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment.
The 2003 paper in question is Alvarez et al., Reducing the Hazard from Stored Spent Power-Reactor fuel in the United States, Science and Global Security, 11:1-51, 2003. In it, Macfarlane and her co-authors acknowledged the danger of a terrorist attack and warned that the effects of a pool fire could be worse than the Chernobyl accident. Further, the paper proposed that “[t]o reduce both the consequences and probability of a spent-fuel-pool fire,” all spent fuel should be “transferred from wet to dry storage within five years of discharge.” The paper is available online at https://www.princeton.edu/sgs/publications/sgs/pdf/11_1Alvarez.pdf.
A decade later in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC is about to decide whether to require licensees to halt their use of high-density spent fuel pools and instead use open-frame pool storage combined with dry storage, which would significantly decrease the risk of a pool fire. Spent fuel is currently stored in high-density pools at every reactor in the U.S. Originally intended for short-term cooling of five years or less, reactor pools now hold four to-five times more than their original designs and contain some of the largest concentrations of artificial radioactivity in the world.
Spent fuel pools are susceptible to accidents – such as Fukushima – and are prime targets for terrorists. Unlike reactors, spent fuel pools are not protected by a containment structure to prevent the escape of radioactivity and are not required to have independent redundant cooling.
The NRC admits that a pool fire could release far more radioactivity than a meltdown and displace more than four million people from their homes. After both 9/11 and the Fukushima accident, the NRC recognized the potential for a catastrophic pool fire. Furthermore, the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response uses a predictive tool to aid emergency responders during nuclear accidents which indicates that the radiological release from a pool fire following an earthquake would dwarf that of a reactor meltdown. It also indicates that the consequence of the breach of a dry cask is thousands of times less severe.
The NRC admits that storing spent nuclear fuel in dry casks pose far less hazards. However, NRC staff argues that a switch to dry storage would impose a major expense for America’s aging reactor fleet, now facing stiff competition from other electricity sources.
Thompson said: “The NRC staff is proposing to rely on a ‘Draft Consequence Study’ to recommend against expediting the transfer of spent fuel out of high-density storage pools into low-density open racks and dry storage. But the Draft Consequence Study is totally inadequate for that purpose, because it is too narrow in scope and because it lacks scientific rigor or integrity. The Draft Consequence Study should be scrapped and the NRC should start again with an actual science-based study of pool fire risks.”
Alvarez said: “The NRC staff study lacks integrity because it examines only complete drainage of a pool and ignores the more severe case of partial drainage – despite being warned about this hazard by the National Academy of Sciences in 2004. It’s a remarkable coincidence the NRC staff comes up with assumptions it has already adopted for several years without the benefit of its current scientific analysis. By reverting to the discredited assumption that complete pool drainage is the worst case, the NRC undermines the credibility of the Study. The Study also is too narrow because it significantly underestimates risk by considering only one type of initiating event – an earthquake – and ignoring other credible initiating events that are at least as probable. For instance, the Study ignores the impacts of aging and the potential for an attack on a pool and/or adjacent reactor to initiate a pool fire. Vulnerability of spent fuel storage pools to terrorist attack is perhaps the greatest risk of all and cannot be defined away by probability statistics or cost-benefit analysis”
Diane Curran, attorney, Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg, L.L.P., said: “The NRC Commissioners have stated that they intend to make a decision this fall. The NRC Staff’s Draft Consequence Study is supposed to provide the primary technical basis for the Commission’s decision. Our purpose today is to discuss the reasons we believe the Staff’s analysis is seriously deficient, and inconsistent with a previous independent technical study by the NRC’s current chair, Allison Macfarlane, while she was affiliated with MIT. We are calling upon Dr. Macfarlane to apply her expertise and lead the Commission to a decision that protects the public and the environment from the unacceptable risk of a pool fire.”
Thompson and Alvarez noted that the NRC has never conducted a valid scientific study of pool fire risks, although it has had the capability since prior to 1990. Instead, over a period exceeding three decades, NRC published one bad analysis after another that ignored important characteristics and behavior of high-density fuel storage pools and falsely concluded the pools were safe. Early in 2001, the NRC admitted that it had not fully understood the potential for a catastrophic pool fire. Yet, after the 9/11 attacks, the NRC systematically hid its analyses behind a veil of secrecy. The Draft Consequence Study is the first public study the NRC has released since before September 11 – but it simply perpetuates the same bad science of the period before 9/11.
In calling for the Draft Consequence Study to be scrapped in favor of a bona fide scientific review of the pool fire issue, Thompson and Alvarez noted the following about the 2003 paper co-authored by Chair Macfarlane:
-- In it, the NRC chair joined the view that terrorist attacks are a significant threat to fuel pools - but the Draft Consequence Study does not consider that threat. -- Chair Macfarlane joined the view that the consequences of a pool fire are so great that the NRC should not forego action based on probability calculations alone. -- Chair Macfarlane joined the view that the NRC should take steps to reduce density of fuel stored in pools. -- Chair Macfarlane joined the view that the NRC should be held accountable for failure to take action on risks posed by pool fires.
SOURCE Gordon R. Thompson, Ph.D., Robert Alvarez, and Diane Curran. Washington, DC.