Formal Hearing on Dry Cask Nuclear Waste Storage Rejected

WASHINGTON, DC, April 5, 2004 (ENS) - The pleas of residents and officials throughout the New York City area for a formal adjudicatory hearing on a plan to place Indian Point Nuclear Plant's spent reactor fuel in dry cask storage have been rejected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The commission said it has received received "a large number of letters" requesting an adjudicatory hearing, but has decided that its regular public information meetings will be sufficient and an adjudicatory hearing is not necessary.

Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group that wants Indian Point shut down permanently, warns that above ground dry cask storage of 1,275 tons of spent nuclear fuel, classified as high-level radioactive waste, at the power plant would be a tempting target for terrorists.

Twenty million people live within a 50 mile radius of Indian Point's reactors which are located in northern Westchester County adjacent to the Hudson River, 24 miles north of Manhattan. A large radioactive release triggered by a terrorist attack on or accident at the facility could have devastating health and economic consequences, rendering much of the Hudson River Valley, including New York City, uninhabitable, Riverkeeper warns.

Indian Point

The Indian Point nuclear power plant is on the Hudson River in Westchester County, New York. (Photo courtesy NRC)
When nuclear fuel can no longer sustain power production for economic or other reasons, the spent fuel is removed from the reactor and placed in a spent fuel pool. There the hot radioactive spent fuel is cooled for at least one year, and generally five years, before being put into dry casks, the NRC says.

The need for alternative storage space has increased as spent fuel pools reach their capacity, and a permanent geological repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada is still not operational.

Dry casks, which are heavily shielded containers used to store radioactive material, are currently being used for interim storage in 24 of the 103 operating U.S. nuclear power plants, and their use is expected to grow in the near future.

In a letter dated December 29, 2003, Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc., which operates Indian Point, notified the NRC of its intent to store spent nuclear fuel in dry casks on the Indian Point site in Westchester County.

The NRC wrote in its formal response to the petitioners for a adjudicatory hearing that the dry cask storage design that Entergy plans to use at Indian Point has been reviewed and approved by the NRC through the regular rulemaking process, which included a chance for public comment.

NRC's approval of a cask design is provided in a Certificate of Compliance. Entergy will be required to perform evaluations to ensure that the use of the specific dry cask storage system conforms to the Certificate of Compliance and the existing license requirements for Indian Point. Entergy’s evaluations will be subject to NRC inspection.

But Riverkeeper is not satisfied that the storage containers, as designed, are sufficient to prevent the release of radiation in the event of a terrorist attack. "Nuclear watchdogs - as well as government and industry officials - contend that the casks are poorly made, unreliable, and vulnerable to terrorist acts," the groups says.


Dry cask spent nuclear fuel storage (Photo courtesy U.S. Energy Department)
In its letter of response, the NRC assures the residents and official petitioners that the commission will perform inspections during construction, preoperational testing, and operational activities to ensure that all safety requirements are met for operation of a dry cask storage facility at Indian Point.

"We understand that residents and local elected officials have questions and concerns," about the dry cask storage facility, the NRC wrote.

During the Annual Assessment meeting with Entergy on April 27, the commission plans to provide an overview of NRC licensing and oversight of dry cask storage systems.

After the April 27, 2004 meeting, the NRC plans to hold a separate public meeting in the vicinity of Indian Point to discuss the NRC’s role in the this part of the general licensing process, dry cask storage system technical reviews, and inspection of storage activities.

But the public meeting was originally planned for the NRC's regional headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, 156 miles from Buchanan, New York where Indian Point is located, and Riverkeeper says that only by public pressure was the information meeting even brought to the the vicinity of the plant so that residents of the area could easily attend.

NRC says the intent of this public meeting is to provide information about the commission’s oversight, including a discussion of the technical requirements for dry cask storage, and the nature of site specific assessments to be completed by Entergy to demonstrate the dry cask storage system meets all requirements.

Still, Riverkeeper says a formal hearing process is needed. "While the informal public meeting that the NRC is planning will allow for public statements and will feature a Q&A session, a formal hearing process will create an official record of individual comments and will ultimately result in a much more sound system of storing spent fuel at Indian Point," the advocacy group said.

That type of formal hearing was rejected by the commission.


Spent nuclear fuel is stored underwater in pools to cool. (Photo courtesy U.S. Energy Department)
When spent nuclear fuel has sat underwater in a spent fuel storage pool long enough to have burned off some of its radioactivity, it is removed from the pool and placed inside stainless-steel casks.

Those casks are then sealed, filled with an inert gas and transported to an outdoor concrete pad, where they are placed inside specially designed vaults made of steel reinforced concrete. Convective air flow through vents at the top and bottom of the vaults helps ensure that the fuel remains properly cooled.

With cask some designs, the steel cylinders containing the fuel are placed vertically in a concrete vault; other designs orient the cylinders horizontally. The concrete vaults provide the radiation shielding.

Other cask designs orient the steel cylinder vertically on a concrete pad at a dry cask storage site and use both metal and concrete outer cylinders for radiation shielding.

The commission says that dry spent fuel storage in casks is "safe and environmentally sound." Over the last 20 years, there have been no radiation releases which have affected the public, no radioactive contamination, and no known or suspected attempts to sabotage spent fuel casks, the NRC says.

Spent fuel is currently kept in dry storage at independent spent fuel storage installations (ISFSIs) located at 24 power plant sites, one decommissioned power plant site at Fort St. Vrain, two plants in the process of decommissioning - Rancho Seco and Trojan - and at an interim storage facility operated by the Department of Energy located at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho.

One additional ISFSI, the General Electric-Morris Operation in Illinois, is licensed for wet storage of spent fuel.

The NRC says the casks are "robust structures designed to withstand events potentially more damaging than earthquakes, such as cask drops, tip-overs, tornadoes, and wind-driven projectiles."

To view a map of the 24 power plants with dry cask storage go to: