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Industry, Activists at Odds Over Security Risks of Interim Waste Storage

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Dry cask nuclear waste storage units at the James A. Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant in New York. Activist and industry groups differ on whether consolidating nuclear waste from 72 sites would make the material more vulnerable to an extremist strike (AP Photo/Holtec International). Dry cask nuclear waste storage units at the James A. Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant in New York. Activist and industry groups differ on whether consolidating nuclear waste from 72 sites would make the material more vulnerable to an extremist strike (AP Photo/Holtec International).

WASHINGTON – Industry and watchdog groups are at odds over whether the Obama administration’s plan to move nuclear waste from power plants to a centralized interim storage location would increase the risk of a successful terrorist attack.

In a report released on Friday, the Energy Department endorsed a plan that would consolidate at one or more locations waste now stored at 72 civilian power plants and various nuclear weapons sites. The material would remain there in government custody until a permanent, underground repository is established. While specific details pertaining to such a site do not yet exist, the plan assumes one could be operational by 2048.

Industry, which argues the government is already past its legal deadline for taking custody of the waste, supports centralized interim storage in the absence of a permanent repository. Activist groups, however, have long argued that moving the nuclear waste to centralized interim sites would increase security risks. The sides reaffirmed those positions this week in light of the DOE report.

“If enacted, [the centralized interim storage plan] would launch unprecedented numbers of risky high-level radioactive waste shipments, by truck, train and barge, onto our country’s roads, rails and waterways,” said Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear.

Materials might need to be moved once to an interim site and again later if and when a permanent repository becomes available, increasing its vulnerability to terrorist attacks, Kamps said. In the event of a successful attack, harmful radiation would be released into the surrounding environment, activists fear.

Kamps predicted these deliveries would take decades, meaning waste would continue to pile up at reactor sites in a manner that watchdog groups argue is unsecure. Spent fuel pools, for example, are vulnerable to fires and terrorist assaults, they say.

“The risk of accidents, attacks and externally radioactively contaminated shipments means high-level radioactive waste transportation cannot be entered into for no good reason, such as nuclear industry lobbyists’ pressure to transfer title and liability for the wastes from the utilities that profited from its generation onto the American taxpayer,” Kamps said.

Kamps, along with other activists, argued instead for beefing up nuclear waste security at reactor sites until a secure and permanent repository is ready. In addition to the concerns about spent fuel pools, dry cask containers, which are sometimes used to store or ship spent fuel after it is removed from the pools, are not strong enough to withstand impact from armor-piercing weapons, Kamps contended.

The advocate for enhanced nuclear waste security said a 1998 test conducted at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland showed a German dry cask container does not hold up against antitank missiles. Kamps said casks typically used in the United States have even thinner walls than the German model.

“An explosive and incendiary attack against one or more dry casks could ignite the irradiated nuclear fuel inside, resulting in a disastrous release of volatile radioactivity, including a large fraction of the hazardous … cesium-137 content,” Kamps said. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years and is known to collect in muscle tissue.

John Keeley, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, countered that the Aberdeen test damaged “a type of cask not commonly in use in the United States” and is “not a conclusive indicator of the resilience of dry casks to terrorist attacks.”

Keeley said an analysis conducted by the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico showed that a cask typically used in the United States could withstand a device 30 times more powerful than an antitank weapon. Other analyses indicated such containers could survive impact from commercial aircraft and attacks by F-16 fighter jets, Keeley contended.

“All of these analyses conclude that the robust system of concentric steel and concrete cylindrical containers will prevent significant amounts of radioactive material from being released to the environment,” Keeley said.

In addition, Keeley noted that industry has already “completed more than 3,000 shipments of used nuclear fuel over the past 40 years with no harmful releases of radioactivity or injuries, fatalities or environmental damage as a result of the radioactive nature of the cargo.”

Industry backs centralized interim storage, as “one or two centralized sites would be more economical than dozens,” Keeley said.

“The law as it exists today requires the federal government to take title to used nuclear fuel, and by not doing so, the feds have incurred hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in judgments for nuclear utilities,” he added

The debate comes as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering updating its regulations for spent fuel storage and transportation. In a Federal Register notice published on Thursday, the commission asks for public comment on the matter by March 18.

The potential revision, Kamps said, could serve as an opportunity for the commission to require tougher security measures for dry casks. Activists, though, are concerned that Thursday’s notice suggests the commission is looking at possibly “streamlining the process for spent fuel storage cask design certification.”

If anything, the certification process should be made more robust, Kamps argued. He complained that at the Palisades Nuclear Generating Plant in Michigan, the commission approved the design of what later were determined to be faulty dry casks without completing a detailed environmental review.

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