Nuclear Power Regulator Sticks Its Head Further into the Ground

May 28, 2014
David Wright
Former contributor

An ostrich is a clichéd symbol of people making bird-brained decisions that ignore reality. But it’s hard to think of something more apt for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sometimes.

Ostrich

Source: Sven-Kåre Evenseth

Take its most recent decision: The commissioners voted 4 to 1 to end consideration of a plan to accelerate the transfer of the growing stocks of nuclear waste at U.S. nuclear plants from spent fuel pools to safer dry casks. (The lone vote for safety was cast by the NRC Chair—Allison Macfarlane.) Moreover, the Commission said it didn’t want to think about it anymore, ordering that “no further generic assessments be pursued related to possible regulatory actions to require the expedited transfer of spent fuel to dry cask storage.”

That anti-science position is difficult to fathom. Given the potential consequences of an accident or terrorist attack on a spent fuel pool, you would hope the body responsible for ensuring public safety would want to know all it could, and use that information to reduce nuclear risks.

Risks from Spent Fuel Pools

After all, most spent fuel pools at reactors at U.S. plants contain much more nuclear material than the reactor core itself—in many cases more than 5 times as much. And as I noted in an earlier post, even the NRC believes that poses a huge risk. A recent study by NRC staff considered an accident scenario at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania that resulted in a fire of the spent fuel rods and the release of radioactivity that, on average, would lead to more than 17,000 cancer deaths, 9,400 square miles of evacuated territory—an area the size of New Hampshire—and more than 4 million people displaced long-term.

So everyone agrees the consequences of such an accident are potentially huge. And in such a case, transferring spent fuel out of the pools and putting it in dry casks would make an astounding difference.

In particular, the same NRC staff study compared the consequences of an unmitigated spent fuel fire in the Peach Bottom pool today with the consequences assuming all spent fuel that had been in the pool longer than 5 years had been moved to dry casks. It found that after the transfer, the number of cancer deaths would be 10 times smaller and the amount of evacuated territory and number of long-term displaced people would both be 50 times smaller.

The NRC’s “Flawed and Incomplete Analysis”

So, what was behind the Commission’s decision?

It decided that while the consequences of such an event might be horrific, the probability of it happening was so low that it didn’t need to take additional steps to lessen those consequences. You would think it must have pretty convincing evidence of that fact to make such a decision and decree that it was time to stop looking at it further.

You would be wrong.

People—including staffers at the NRC itself—have identified a lot of problems with the analysis that backs up the NRC’s conclusion (see, eg, here and here). My colleague Ed Lyman calls the analysis “flawed and incomplete.”

But you don’t need to get into the details of the study to find a glaring omission that undermines its conclusions: The analysis did not include the possibility of a terrorist attack on a spent fuel pool. Even if a nuclear plant is operating perfectly, such an attack could lead to exactly the kind of “loss of coolant” accident described above. And in a 2006 study, the National Academy of Sciences calls out spent fuel pools as something “knowledgeable terrorists might choose to attack.”

So the crucial piece of logic leading to the NRC’s wrong-headed decision is completely unconvincing—certainly not something you should bet the safety of tens of thousands of Americans on.

Ostriches sticking their heads in the ground appeals to our sense of absurdity—the idea that it thinks it can be safe by refusing to look at whatever risk is at hand. That absurdity becomes tragic when the NRC does the same thing, and people’s lives are at stake.