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Backgrounder on Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel

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What is Spent Nuclear Fuel?

Image showing a spent fuel pool


Spent nuclear fuel refers to the bundles of uranium pellets encased in metal rods that have been used to power a nuclear reactor. Nuclear fuel loses efficiency over time and becomes unable to keep a nuclear reaction going. Periodically, about one-third of the fuel assemblies in a reactor must be replaced. The nuclear reaction is stopped before the spent fuel is removed. But spent fuel still produces a lot of radiation and heat that must be managed to protect workers, the environment and the public.


 

How is spent nuclear fuel managed?

Pool Storage: Every reactor site has at least one spent fuel pool into which fuel is placed for storage when it is removed from the reactor. Spent fuel pools:

Image showing a spent fuel pool
  • Are located inside the plant’s protected area.
  • Contain an enormous quantity of water, which acts to cool the fuel and provide radiation shielding.
  • Have no drains that would allow the water to drain out.
  • Can be filled using a variety of water sources.
  • Have large safety margins, including about 20 feet of water above the top of the fuel, giving plant operators time to correct any problem that may arise.
  • Are robust, with very thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls and stainless-steel liners.
  • May be located below ground level, shielded by other structures, or surrounded by walls that would protect the pool from a plane crash or other impact.

 

Dry cask storage: The NRC has also authorized nuclear power plant licensees to store their spent fuel on-site in NRC-approved dry storage casks. These casks:

  • Are located inside the plant’s protected area.
  • Are designed to resist floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, projectiles and temperature extremes.
  • Have very thick metal or steel-reinforced concrete outer shells and a sealed inner metal cylinder.
  • Draw fresh air in at the bottom without fans or pumps and allow heated air to rise through vents at the top. A typical cask emits roughly the same heat as a home-heating system.

 

What makes spent fuel storage safe?

Photo of Horizontal Storage Facility

NRC regulatory requirements: The NRC sets strict requirements for safe spent fuel storage. Developed through a public process, these requirements provide a sound technical basis for protecting public health and safety and the environment. Reactor licensees and equipment vendors provide detailed descriptions of pool storage racks and dry casks, including extensive tests and analyses to show the equipment and its operation meet NRC requirements. The NRC carefully reviews these submittals. To obtain NRC approval, the designs must:

Image showing a Dry Storage Cask
  • Prevent the release of radiation
  • Be structurally robust
  • Prevent a nuclear fission reaction
  • Safely manage heat
  • Use materials that can withstand radiation, heat and corrosion

Inspections, monitoring, testing: NRC inspectors ensure that spent fuel is stored safely by:

  • Regularly inspecting reactor and equipment vendors
  • Inspecting the design, construction, and use of equipment
  • Observing “dry runs” of procedures

Power reactors must limit radiation doses to workers and the public—including at spent fuel pools and cask storage facilities. The facilities are under constant monitoring and surveillance.

The NRC also performs periodic testing and analysis that have shown:

  • Spent fuel and cask components perform as predicted even after years of dry storage
  • Potential health risks from loading and storing spent fuel in dry casks are very small
  • No known radiation releases have affected the public since casks were first loaded in 1986

How do NRC regulations evolve to address new information?

Fukushima response: Following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami at Japan’s Fukushima plant, the NRC ordered licensees to:

  • Install additional instruments to monitor water levels in the pool
  • Develop ways to easily maintain or restore spent fuel pool cooling in an emergency.

The NRC is evaluating how the spent fuel pool at a U.S. reactor similar to Fukushima might respond to an earthquake far more powerful than the one that struck Japan. A study published in 2013 found a one-in-10-million-years chance that a severe earthquake could cause a radioactive release from the spent fuel pool at that reactor. In that extremely unlikely case, the study found that existing procedures would keep the population around the plant safe.

Post 9/11 security requirements: While there have been no known or suspected attempts to sabotage spent fuel storage facilities, the NRC upgraded security requirements after Sept. 11, 2001. Licensees are responsible for meeting those requirements. Security has multiple layers, including the ability to detect and stop an intrusion.

February 2014

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Thursday, June 26, 2014