U.S. nuclear fuel rods to sit in pools — like those that failed in Japan — until 2050

Spent nuclear-fuel rods will continue to stack up outside American reactors in wet pools similar to two that failed in Japan's nuclear disaster, while the government and industry pursue recycling technologies expected to become viable by 2050.
This was the testimony of Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Peter Lyons, the acting assistant energy secretary, in a Senate Energy Committee hearing this morning.
Fresh from visits to two California reactors, Sen. Diane Feinstein questioned the men about spent fuel rods being stored indefinitely in cooling pools that were designed to be temporary and that filled to their original design capacity years ago.
With no final destination for nuclear waste in the U.S., reactor operators have "racked and re-racked" the spent fuel, as Feinstein put it, in pools at 65 reactor sites across the country.
"I have a hard time understanding why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not mandated more rapid movement of spent fuel to dry casks," she told Jaczko. "There were no problems with dry cask storage in Dai-ichi. The spent fuel [in wet pools] at Dai-ichi posed a significant problem, contributing to at least one of the hydrogen explosions.
"It is clear that we lack a comprehensive policy to manage the nuclear fuel."
Jaczko said the pools could be used to safely store spent fuel rods for 100 years. Some have been doing so for 35 years already. Feinstein asked about safety standards for spent-fuel pools, and the dialogue proceeded like this:
Jaczko: The spent fuel pools meet many of the same standards that the reactor itself would have to meet. For instance, the spent fuel pools themselves are required to withstand the natural phenomena, like earthquakes and tsunamis that could impact the reactor itself. The spent fuel is required to be able to deal with these severe accidents. It’s also required to be able to deal with the possiblibility of any type of nuclear reaction happening in the pool itself. So there are very high standards and they are comparable to the reactors themselves.
Feinstein: Well didn’t Japan have similar standards, and yet the spent fuel pools could not withstand the tsunami, the earthquake?
Jaczko: At this point we don't know exactly what contributed to the situation with the spent fuel pools in Japan. It’s unclear whether that was a direct result of the earthquake itself or whether that was the result of some subsequent actions such as the hydrogen explosions that occurred.
Two of six wet pools failed to contain radiation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the earthquake there. "We don’t know for sure what the siutation is," Jaczko said. "We think it’s possible there was perhaps a leak in the unit 3 pool and perhaps there were some other challenges in the unit 4 pool."
The Obama Administration has abandoned development of a nuclear waste storage facility proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nevada in favor of emerging technologies for recycling and stabilizing spent fuel. The Department of Energy is funding research in those technologies, and a Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future is expected to recommend a spent-fuel policy next year, or later.
The Obama Administration has dismissed spent-fuel reprocessing systems already used in France and Japan because of security and environmental risks.
"We think that with research we can do substantially better, and that is the research that Secretary Chu is pursuing through my office," said Peter Lyons of the Energy Department.
According to papers filed with the Blue Ribbon Commission, the current research involves faster and simpler processes for separating uranium and plutonium from other fission products in spent fuel and from minor elements like americium and curium. The latter elements would be destroyed in a fast-burner reactor.
Other research is focusing on finding improved, durable forms for each type of radioactive waste, some of which could be recycled and others stored indefinitely.
Republican senators on the committee, Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, praised the administration's plans.
"I've always been a fan of the French reprocessing system," Graham said, "but quite frankly Secretary Chu has convinced me… that if we'll be patient maybe in the next decade plus there will be new technologies on the spent fuel reprocessing front that will be worth waiting on."

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