Nuclear Panel Sees Minimal Terror Risk in Spent-Fuel Pools

A mixed-oxide fuel storage pool inside Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima facility in Japan. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that a minimal terrorism risk to spent nuclear-fuel cooling pools in the United States does not require moving to an alternative storage method.
A mixed-oxide fuel storage pool inside Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima facility in Japan. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that a minimal terrorism risk to spent nuclear-fuel cooling pools in the United States does not require moving to an alternative storage method. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sees minimal terrorism risk to U.S. atomic waste held in cooling pools, the New York Times reports.

During a Monday meeting, four of the five NRC commissioners agreed with a staff recommendation that moving used reactor fuel into dry casks is not significantly safer than allowing it to collect in storage pools for long periods. The NRC chairwoman, Allison Macfarlane, expressed skepticism about the staff finding. The commissioners have not yet voted on the matter but might do so in the future.

The deliberations followed a 2006 National Research Council determination that a terror strike on such equipment is a real possibility. Use of cooling ponds for long-term fuel storage has attracted notable criticism, particularly after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi atomic energy disaster. A failure in storage tanks there led to the release of vast quantities of radioactive material.

David Heacock, chief nuclear officer of the atomic plant operator Dominion Nuclear, said the odds of a cooling pond sustaining harm from a natural or manmade incident are "effectively zero." Procedures are already in place for responding to a possible problem, added the industry official, whose company operates reactors in Virginia and other states.

"This is not a complicated mitigation, nor is it difficult," he said. "It’s basically, just add water."

Gordon Thompson, who heads the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, Mass., told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel that the United States would effectively accept the existence of "pre-emplaced radiological weapons" by continuing to assent to the long-term storage of highly radioactive fuel in nuclear-plant cooling ponds.

Thompson argued that removing coolant from such a pool would cause radiation in the surrounding area to rapidly become lethal, eliminating the possibility of any "mitigating action."

Correction: An earlier version of this article should have noted that NRC commissioner views were expressed in discussion with staff, but no panel vote on the matter has been held.

January 7, 2014
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The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sees minimal terrorism risk to U.S. atomic waste held in cooling pools, the New York Times reports.

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