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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Lasting home elusive for used Hanford fuel

Seismic studies raise concerns about plant

Karen Dorn Steele Senior correspondent

Critics challenging the safety of Washington state’s only commercial nuclear power plant say it should not get its license renewed until all questions about the integrity of its spent fuel storage systems are answered in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan.

In the most serious nuclear catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, a fuel storage pond at the Dai-ichi nuclear complex’s No. 4 reactor in Fukushima, Japan, may have caught fire after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami when the rods lost their protective water covering, resulting in a hydrogen explosion.

“Spent” fuel is contained in uranium-packed rods that no longer produce enough energy to fuel a nuclear reaction inside a reactor. But the spent fuel still contains dangerous levels of radiation, which can harm people and contaminate the food chain if released into the environment – an ongoing reality in Japan.

Now, attention is turning to the safety of the nearly 72,000 tons of spent fuel rods from 104 commercial nuclear reactors stored at 77 sites in the United States. Among that number is Hanford’s Columbia Generating Station, 10 miles north of Richland – a facility for which new information is emerging about the increased potential for seismic activity in that region.

Robert Alvarez, a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy during the Clinton administration, said the 27-year-old Hanford reactor “fits the profile of what we need to be concerned about.”

That’s because the 1,150-megawatt boiling water reactor has a design similar to the damaged reactors in Japan, its spent fuel pond is crowded and it is located in an active seismic and volcano zone, he said.

“Its license extension request should be halted and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should pore over these things,” Alvarez said.

Energy Northwest spokeswoman Rochelle Olson said the reactor is robust and has multiple backup systems to safeguard spent fuel, but the company will be re-examining all of its critical systems in light of the unfolding nuclear accident in Japan.

“Reactors in the United States have more emergency backups than the Japanese reactors appear to,” Olson said.

She denied that the spent fuel pond inside the reactor building is overcrowded, saying it contains 1,748 fuel assemblies cooled under 23 feet of water – 66 percent of its licensed capacity.

Older rods have been encased in steel and concrete and moved to “dry storage” outside the reactor building. Some 1,836 additional fuel assemblies are stored in this manner, Olson added.

Fault line extends to Pasco

Meanwhile, raising new questions about earthquake dangers at Hanford, the U.S. Geological Survey has made further progress in pinpointing the easternmost limits of a geological fault that extends 250 to 300 miles across the Cascades from the Olympic Peninsula.

The biggest surprise was that the fault crossed the Cascades, because most faults run parallel to the Cascades.

“The faults don’t just end in Puget Sound. Over five years, the U.S. Geological Survey has been looking east to see where the strain might go,” said Rick Blakely, a USGS research geophysicist based in Menlo Park, Calif., who used data collected by a low-flying plane to create a magnetic map of basalt formations in Eastern Washington.

In 2009, the agency described the fault as starting near Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. In a scientific paper due for publication later this year, Blakely and his colleagues will report that the fault extends to Pasco.

“Our hypothesis is that many big faults in Eastern Washington go through the Cascades,” Blakely said.

The largest fault-induced earthquake in Washington history, estimated at magnitude 6.8 although it occurred before the Richter scale was employed, took place in 1872 in the vicinity of Lake Chelan, he added.

In June 1946, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake in the Strait of Georgia off British Columbia sunk the seabed nearly 85 feet in some places, and in spring 1949, a magnitude 7.0 quake rocked the Olympia area.

The Columbia Generating Station was built to withstand a 7.3 magnitude quake and was erected three miles from the Columbia River on higher ground to lessen flood hazards, said Olson, the Energy Northwest spokeswoman.

Working with the Electric Power Research Institute, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began to update its seismic hazard studies in 2008. Its report, submitted in August 2010, raised earthquake hazard risks for plants nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Energy relied on outdated seismic data when it began to plan an expensive new plant to treat Hanford’s highly toxic defense wastes, according to a Jan. 8, 2010, memo from the Office of the Inspector General.

The contractor relied on 1996 data that said a Hanford earthquake would be severe – “similar to California,” the memo says.

But in 2002, the Defense Nuclear Safety Board questioned this assumption and did new studies in 2007 that “confirmed an increasing level of hazard,” even above that found in California, the inspector general’s memo says.

Subsequent changes to the design of the waste treatment plant increased its cost by more than $650 million and delayed its schedule by two to four years, according to the memo by Assistant Inspector General George Collard.

Calls for ‘safe storage’ policy

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is defending the safety of its fuel storage policies while it prepares to respond to the Obama administration’s recent order for a thorough review of nuclear plant safety as a result of the catastrophe in Japan.

“We believe spent fuel can be stored safely in pools and in dry storage,” said NRC spokesman Victor Dricks.

The Columbia Generating Station’s current operating license extends to 2023. Last year, Energy Northwest applied to the NRC for a license extension that would allow it to operate through 2043.

While the company hopes that license will be granted by June 2012, it could be delayed as regulators assess lessons learned from the unfolding Japanese situation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., is also calling for a national “safe storage” policy that would place spent fuel more than 5 years old in hardened, dry containers less vulnerable to disruptions from earthquakes and other calamities.

Germany did that 25 years ago after a series of NATO airplane crashes and other mishaps near its spent fuel ponds, noted Alvarez, the senior policy adviser. The country also put the ponds under hardened containment domes.

Critics of current storage policies cite a 1997 report conducted by the Brookhaven National Laboratory for the NRC that found a severe fuel-pool fire at any reactor could make about 188 square miles uninhabitable and cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities. Damages could reach $59 billion, the report said.

Until 2002, all of the used fuel from the Columbia Generating Station was stored in a pool located above the reactor with a capacity of 2,658 fuel assemblies.

It was designed with the understanding that after about six years the spent fuel would be transferred to a national repository – later identified as Yucca Mountain in Nevada after a lengthy and contentious national site selection process.

But the Yucca Mountain project was canceled by the Obama administration last year – meaning that tons of spent fuel will continue to be stored at or near individual reactors for decades to come.

Washington’s attorney general is suing the U.S. Department of Energy over this decision, saying it endangers people in Eastern Washington.

In arguments last Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Fitz told a panel of appellate judges in Washington, D.C., that the president is obligated to follow the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act and create a final disposal site for commercial spent fuel and nuclear defense wastes.

The Obama administration has set up a blue-ribbon commission on America’s nuclear future and has given it two years to come up with an alternative to deep drilling into Yucca Mountain.

Additionally, a majority of the nation’s nuclear weapons waste still remains at Hanford, buried in the soil or stored in 53 million-gallon tanks. The tank wastes are eventually supposed to be turned into glass logs for burial at the new treatment plant that was delayed because of a seismic redesign.

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