The nuclear crisis in Japan provides an impetus for Congress to confront a failed national policy on dealing with spent fuel from U.S. reactors, witnesses told a Senate subcommittee yesterday.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ernest Moniz called for an accelerated transfer of spent nuclear fuel rods from storage in water-covered pools at reactor sites to concrete and steel "dry" casks. Secondly, Moniz said, the federal government should create several regional facilities to store the containers for an extended period until a new strategy for managing nuclear waste fuel can be put in place -- a position he and MIT colleagues have argued for since before the emergency at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.
"The Fukushima problems with spent fuel pools co-located with reactors will undoubtedly lead to a re-evaluation of spent fuel management strategies," Moniz told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.
"We should really think hard about consolidated storage, presumably at federal reservations," Moniz said.
"I agree with you," replied Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chairwoman.
Congress voted to create a permanent spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., and the Energy Department has spent $10 billion on research and construction of the facility. But under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Obama administration has shelved the project.
The Energy Department seeks to withdraw "with prejudice" the government's license application submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- a decision that Yucca Mountain project supporters are challenging in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Temporary storage for a century?
Having no permanent waste fuel repository in sight, the NRC has concluded that spent fuel may be safely stored at reactor sites for as long as a century, if necessary. Feinstein challenged Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko on that conclusion at yesterday's hearing.
"We must begin to rethink how we handle spent fuel," Feinstein. "I'm amazed at the idea of storing it there for 100 years."
Two other witnesses before Feinstein's subcommittee, representing the nuclear industry and one of its frequent critics, differed on the implications of the reactor crisis on the safety of spent reactor fuel stored at the 104 U.S. nuclear power plants. But both agreed it was time to confront the stalemated issues surrounding the spent fuel.
"For unfathomable reasons, reactor fuel is considered benign after it is taken out of a reactor but before it is placed in a repository," said David Lochbaum, head of the nuclear safety program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. While irradiated fuel inside reactors is protected by multiple layers of shielding and redundant systems for preventing the overheating of fuel rods and release of radioactive contamination, spent fuel pools are typically covered with sheet metal roofs, "like that in a Sears storage shed," he said.
One of the spent fuel pools at the top of Fukushima reactor No. 4 suffered a hydrogen explosion and lost all or most of its cooling water during the emergency, permitting the fuel units to ignite and release radioactive elements into the atmosphere through the shattered metal roof.
"The irrefutable bottom line is we have utterly failed to properly manage the risk from irradiated fuel stored at our nations' nuclear power plants," he said. He, too, called for faster transfer of fuel units from pools to dry cask storage, after the required five- or six-year initial cooling period in the water-filled pools. Systems and procedures to deal with spent fuel pool accidents for must strengthened, as well, he said.