CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Valley Authority stores spent fuel and fuel rods, just like other nuclear plant operators, but an industry analyst is questioning the safety of some storage sheds.
TVA has more than 2,544 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel in cooling ponds at its Sequoyah and Watts Bar nuclear plants in Tennessee and Browns Ferry plant in North Alabama. That is far more than in the reactors themselves.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Edwin Lyman said the amount of fuel from TVA’s reactors represents about “100 reactor-years worth of discharges.”
Nuclear industry analyst David Lochbaum told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that some storage pools are in buildings with sheet-metal siding.
“I have nothing against the quality or utility of Sears storage sheds, but they are not suitable for nuclear waste storage,” Lochbaum told members of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee on March 30.
TVA nuclear spokesman Ray Golden said the spent fuel pools at TVA’s three nuclear plants are safe.
Both Lyman and Lochbaum have testified before congressional panels in recent weeks, urging better regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
They both have been pushing for years to move spent fuel out of pools and into dry cask storage. Casks holding spent fuel rods are made of heavy steel, concrete or both and placed on concrete pads.
The advice has begun getting attention since the Japanese nuclear crisis that followed a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami.
Golden said TVA likely will move more aggressively to transfer spent fuel from pools to casks, though he couldn’t say when.
NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said Friday the regulatory agency has committed to Congress to make a 90-day “quick look” at potential problems, including spent fuel and seismic threats.
“We have not made any decision on spent fuel pools,” he said. “We’ll obviously look at that.”
TVA executives have said its nuclear sites, in event of a quake, wouldn’t cause a repeat of the kind of radiation emergency that happened in Japan.
At Browns Ferry, a plant with the same design as Fukushima-Dai-ichi in Japan, more than 1,415 metric tons of spent fuel and rods lie in three pools on a massive concrete pad above the plant’s three reactors.
All that encloses the pools is a heavy garage like metal roof and walls.
“We may harden that,” Golden said.
He said fire hoses and other safety cooling back-ups were installed at the plant’s pool level after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
At Sequoyah and Watts Bar, about 812 and 315 metric tons of spent fuel, respectively, lie in pools next to the plants.
In the pools, cooling water and boron cover the radioactive fuel assemblies that have been removed from reactors. The cooling water is circulated by pumps run by electricity. If electricity and back-up power fails, as happened in Japan, the fuel heats the water to boiling and it can steam away.
Lyman and Lochbaum say nuclear scientists have known for more than two decades that losing water in a dense-packed pool would cause the waste fuel to heat up quickly and possibly catch fire.
TVA, the nuclear industry and the NRC contend there would be far less fuel in holding pools had Congress and the Department of Energy approved a long-term storage facility such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
President Obama is supporting construction of more nuclear plants as a way to fight dependence on foreign oil. But funding has been cut for a proposed high-level radioactive waste facility in Nevada and no alternative has been identified..
“TVA paid in hundreds of millions of dollars,” to the fund for the Yucca Mountain site, Golden said. He said the entire nuclear industry has contributed $30 billion.
Lochbaum told senators that the bottom line is that “we have utterly failed to properly manage the risk from irradiated fuel stored at our nation’s nuclear power plants. We can and must do better.”
TVA, the country’s largest public utility, supplies power to about 9 million people in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.