Coakley warns on spent fuel rods

AG says storage at Vt. Yankee, Pilgrim a risk

Post-9/11 safety reviews at US nuclear plants have made them especially robust, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said. Post-9/11 safety reviews at US nuclear plants have made them especially robust, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said.
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / March 21, 2011

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Federal officials have underestimated the potential danger posed by radioactive spent fuel storage pools at the Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee nuclear power plants, the Massachusetts attorney general charged yesterday, underscoring five years of legal challenges the state has waged to force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to examine the risks more thoroughly.

The unfolding Japanese nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant — including a spent fuel pool that US officials have said appears to have gone dry and released radioactive material — has riveted attention on possible vulnerabilities at US plants. Late last week, President Obama and the nuclear industry pledged a full review of reactors, including their cooling systems and spent fuel storage.

Massachusetts has long argued that the lack of a federal repository where plants can send spent fuel rods, coupled with plans by plants such as Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee to operate 20 years beyond the 40 years they were originally licensed for, will ramp up the number of radioactive rods in pools on site — and the risk from an accident, natural disaster, or terrorist attack.

“Since 2006, we have urged the NRC to consider alternative storage at these plants, but the NRC concluded that further study was unnecessary because the risk of breach and subsequent fire was ‘insignificant.’ We believe it is surely worth reconsidering that assessment,’’ Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement.

Coakley has failed through past legal efforts to get the NRC to budge, and she has limited legal options now, but she is hoping to bring pressure to bear on the NRC.

She said nuclear energy is an important way to help meet the state’s and country’s energy needs, but the NRC “should be doing all it can to ensure the safety of these plants, and reevaluating the risks of wet spent fuel storage in light of the events in Japan must be part of that process.’’

In previous court filings, her office has suggested the NRC look more closely at dry storage, which usually involves placing the spent fuel in stainless steel containers surrounded by concrete.

But the NRC, nuclear industry officials, and spokesmen for Pilgrim, in Plymouth, and Vermont Yankee, in Vernon near the Massachusetts border, said yesterday the spent fuel pools were sturdy and safe.

“The NRC has extensively studied the safety and security of spent fuel storage at US nuclear power plants. This includes a fresh assessment after the 9/11 attacks,’’ agency spokesman Neil Sheehan said in a statement.

Yesterday, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko told the C-Span “Newsmakers’’ program that post-9/11 safety analyses at US nuclear plants have made them especially robust, and said the commission is meeting, starting today, to look at lessons it can learn from the Japan crisis.

Spent nuclear fuel is still radioactive and must be stored in pools with circulating water to prevent radioactive release. Nuclear plant operators originally assumed that some spent fuel would be recycled and the rest disposed at a federal repository. But commercial reprocessing never happened, and amid strong local opposition, a nuclear fuel repository never opened at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Plants have been left to deal with growing numbers of spent fuel rods in near-capacity and, state officials say, densely-packed pools. Japan’s plants also have years worth of spent fuel rods on site.

Dozens of nuclear plants now place some partially cooled rods in dry storage, a technology that nuclear critics say is more secure than pools because it doesn’t risk large-scale radioactive release that can occur in spent fuel pools. However, dry storage is significantly more expensive.

In recent years Vermont Yankee has moved some fuel to dry storage, according to a spokesman for Entergy, which owns the plant. Spokesman Larry Smith said the pools were safe and the move to dry storage was to get some rods ready for when the federal government would have a repository to take them.

The spent fuel rod issue has “been looked at in detail and the questions have been answered,’’ Smith said. The NRC voted to extend the license of Vermont Yankee the day before the Japan earthquake, but its staff has not issued it because the agency has been too busy helping Japan, the NRC said last week.

Yesterday on C-Span, Jaczko said the Vermont Yankee decision was done and we are going “through some of the last paperwork.’’ However, he said if special concerns were raised about design or other issues, they would be corrected right away.

A vigil and protest outside the plant yesterday drew a crowd that local police estimated at 200 to 250 people, but organizers said the number was more than double that.

Pilgrim, also owned by Entergy, is in final design stages for moving some rods to dry storage, said a spokesman, and also stressed the safety of the pools. Pilgrim has not yet been relicensed by the NRC.

Both Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee have come under extra scrutiny in the last 10 days because their spent fuel pools are elevated, like the compromised one at Fukushima Daiichi. Critics say this design makes them more vulnerable to loss of coolant that can spill from the structures if they suffer structural damage.

The spent fuel pool of the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire is below grade.

The Massachusetts attorney general first intervened in the Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee relicensing proceedings in 2006, arguing that post-9/11 terrorism concerns and new studies about the risk of fires in spent fuel pools called for additional analysis.

But the NRC said those issues affected all nuclear facilities and if they were to be considered at all, it should be as part of a general rule-making process instead of an individual license application. Massachusetts appealed, and lost. The NRC also decided against doing the broader analysis of spent fuel pools; Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut appealed that decision and lost again.

Yesterday, Coakley seemed to express frustration at the lack of information released by NRC officials, who often cite terrorism or national security concerns as a reason they cannot disclose studies on spent fuel pools or risks.

“In conducting its review, the commission also should be open with the public regarding the facts, studies, and opinions it considers when making its rulings,’’ Coakley’s statement said.

Opponents of the Pilgrim nuclear plant said they hope Coakley’s renewed effort could result in more say over the plant’s relicensing.

“We now have a pool jam-packed way beyond its original design,’’ said Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch, a group that has opposed the plant’s relicensing. “If the water drops for any reason — acts of malice, a storm — there would be a fire we could not put out and the consequences would be disastrous.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at