NRC Must Consider Indian Point Waste Safety for the First Time
[New York - August 8, 2012] Yesterday the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted unanimously to wait before approving new licenses for Indian Point or other nuclear plants until it confronts the long deferred question of how to deal with safety and environmental threats posed indefinite on site storage of highly radioactive spent fuel building up in the absence of a permanent repository. According to GreenWire, yesterday’s vote “ will most directly affect Entergy Corp.’s Indian Point nuclear power plant,” preventing a decision on relicensing until the NRC deals with the intractable spent fuel storage problem. Shortly before the NRC vote Clearwater had filed a new safety contention against Indian Point’s relicensing bid with the NRC, which describes in detail the dangers of highly radioactive spent fuel stored at the plant, in the midst of the most populous region of the US, in aging, leaking, overcrowded, inadequate and inadequately monitored facilities. The safety contention was in addition to another recent contention on the environmental impacts of on-site spent fuel storage at Indian Point jointly filed with the NRC by the New York State Attorney General, Clearwater and Riverkeeper.
“I recently toured Indian Point and witnessed the spent fuel storage problem for myself,” said Manna Jo Greene, Clearwater’s Environmental Directory and the Petitioner who filed the recent contention. “The facilities are in shockingly bad shape. The spent fuel pools are aging and deteriorating. They’re so murky and packed with so much spent fuel they’re impossible to inspect properly for leaks or other defects. It’s a long overdue step forward for the NRC to have finally acknowledged the egregious spent fuel situation and to stop excluding it from relicensing decisions. But it shouldn’t stop at just delaying relicensing. Extending Indian Point’s operations beyond its designed 40-year lifespan will compound its already dangerous spent fuel problems. If the NRC really intends to solve them, it should deny relicensing and close the plant.”
In the safety contention it filed with the NRC, Clearwater points out that Indian Point’s application to renew its operating licenses gave “insufficient analysis” of the consequences of indefinitely storing on site very large amounts of radioactive spent fuel that have accumulated and will continue to accumulate at Indian Point as long as its reactors continue to run. Clearwater cites Entergy’s and the NRC’s failure “to establish that any combination of [on-site spent fuel] storage will provide adequate protection of safety over the long term.”
Today, Indian Point’s fuel pools contain about three times the radioactivity of Fukushima’s spent fuel pools – much more than they were designed for. Like all US nuclear plants, Indian Point’s designers assumed that a solution for storing the waste offsite would be found within five years of the reactors opening. But, 34 years later, as the plant’s 40-year operating licenses near expiration, no such solution is in sight. This has meant that spent fuel has built up dangerously at the plant, packed into aging, leaking facilities that were never designed to hold so much of it so close together for so long. The closer together the radioactive spent fuel assemblies are stored, the greater the danger they can shift out of place and get close enough, or pool water levels can get low enough, to cause “criticality,” i.e. touch off a nuclear interaction between spent fuel assemblies that can release their radioactivity. Another danger is that heat from radioactive decay in the fuel rods can cause the zirconium casing to ignite, leading to a very intense fire that would release radioactivity and be extremely difficult to fight.
Housed in unfortified, vulnerable shed-like buildings, the spent fuel pools are already leaking, and maps [Appendix A of this document] of the radioactive plume they have released extending into the Hudson River were cited Clearwater’s recent filing. According to previous testimony of nuclear industry expert Arnold Gunderson of Fairewinds Associates appended to the filing, the spent fuel assemblies are packed so tightly together that 60% of the aging fuel pool liner can’t even be visually inspected for leaks or deterioration. Gunderson also points out that the boron-treated “Boroflex” wrappings designed to absorb neutron radiation from the fuel rods are also deteriorating. They were never designed to work beyond the designed 40-year lifespans of Indian Point’s two reactors, whose licenses expire in 2013 and 2015, nor is there any data or monitoring program that indicates that they would work adequately after that. Failure of neutron absorption is another way the tightly packed fuel rods could go critical. “Boroflex aging is not managed by the Indian Point’s aging management program,” Gunderson wrote in his declaration, “rather Entergy watches as the boron degrades.”
Until now, in its relicensing decisions, the NRC had refused to consider the safety issues raised by Indian Point’s long-term storage of its radioactive spent fuel on site. Instead, the NRC relied on its “Waste Confidence Decision (WCD),” which asserted that some method of off-site storage of nuclear spent fuel would become available when needed. It assumed spent fuel assemblies would be stored on site at nuclear plants for five years, then be reprocessed or sent to a permanent repository. The WCD further assumed that if necessary spent fuel could be stored safely on the site of a nuclear plant for 60 years after its license expired.
Both assumptions were wrong. After four decades of spent fuel building up on site at US commercial nuclear plants, neither reprocessing nor a permanent repository has proved workable yet. On June 8, 2012, ruling on a lawsuit filed by New York State, the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the WCD, saying that while spent fuel poses a “dangerous, long-term health . . . risk,” the NRC failed to examine the “future dangers and key consequences” of long-term storage of spent fuel in spent fuel pools.
“Now that the WCD has been thrown out and the NRC finally decided to deal with spent fuel storage, the Indian Point relicensing decision will have to take the plant’s glaring spent fuel problems into account,” said Richard Webster, attorney with the Environmental Enforcement Project of the DC-based consulting firm Public Justice, who is serving as a consultant to Clearwater, and who also recently toured the plant and saw the fuel pools first hand. “For the first time the public should have the opportunity to get a hearing on these key issues, which have a direct bearing on why Indian Point should not be relicensed. That could be a game-changer.”