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Category Archives: Radioactive Waste

Dry Cask 101 – Criticality Safety

Drew Barto
Senior Nuclear Engineer

CASK_101finalIn earlier Science 101 posts, we told you about how nuclear chain reactions are used to generate electricity in reactors. In a process known as fission, uranium atoms in the fuel break apart, or disintegrate, into smaller atoms. These atoms cause other atoms to split, and so on. This “chain reaction” releases large amounts of heat and power. Another word for this process is “criticality.”

The potential for criticality is an important thing to consider about reactor fuel throughout its life. Fuel is most likely to go critical when it is fresh. It is removed from the reactor after several years (typically four to six) because it will no longer easily support a self-sustaining chain reaction. This “spent fuel” is placed into a storage pool. After cooling for some time in a pool, the fuel may be put into dry storage casks.

Here, a spent fuel assembly is loaded into a dry storage cask.

Here, a spent fuel assembly is loaded into a dry storage cask.

When fuel is removed from the reactor, we require licensees to ensure it will never again be critical. This state is referred to as “subcriticality.” Preventing an inadvertent criticality event is one safety goal of our regulations. Subcriticality is required whether the fuel is stored in a pool or a dry cask. We require it for both normal operating conditions and any accident that could occur at any time.

There are many methods that help to control criticality. The way spent fuel assemblies are positioned is an important one. How close they are to each other and the burnup of (or amount of energy extracted from) nearby assemblies all have an impact. This method of control is referred to as fuel geometry.

Certain chemicals, such as boron, can also slow down a chain reaction. Known as a “neutron absorber,” boron captures neutrons released during fission, and keeps them from striking uranium atoms. Fuel burnup is another factor. As we said above, after some time in the reactor it is harder for fuel to sustain a chain reaction. The longer the fuel is in the reactor, the less likely it is to go critical. However, high burnup fuel generates greater heat loads and radiation, which must be taken into account.

Spent fuel storage cask designs often rely on design features to make sure the fuel remains subcritical. When we review a cask design, this is one of the key elements the NRC looks at in detail.

Casks have strong “baskets” to maintain fuel geometry. They also have solid neutron absorbers, typically made of aluminum and boron, between fuel assemblies. The applications that we review must include an analysis of all the elements that contribute to criticality safety. Part of the analysis is a 3-D model that shows how the fuel will act in normal and accident conditions.

A dry storage canister is loaded into a horizontal storage module.

A dry storage canister is loaded into a horizontal storage module.

Our technical experts review this analysis to make sure the factors that could affect criticality have been identified. We check to see that the models address each of these factors in a realistic way. In cases where the models require assumptions, we make sure they are conservative. That means they result in more challenging conditions than we would actually expect. We also create our own computer models to confirm that the design meets our regulatory requirements. We will only approve a storage cask design if, in addition to meeting other safety requirements, our criticality experts are satisfied that our subcriticality safety requirements have been met.

Our reviewers look at several other technical areas in depth any time we receive an application for a spent fuel storage cask. We will talk about some of the others—materials, thermal, and shielding—in future posts.

Spent Fuel Casks 101 — What We Regulate and Why

Mark Lombard
Director, Division of Spent Fuel Management

CASK_101finalWe talked back in March about dry casks for storing spent nuclear fuel and how they work. Today we want to introduce you to the different things the NRC looks at each time we review a cask application.

To recap: spent fuel is placed into cooling pools at reactor sites when it can no longer efficiently sustain a nuclear reaction. Dry casks give utilities an alternate way to store their spent fuel, freeing up space in the pools. They were first developed back in the 1980s because space in the pools – designed for temporary storage – was growing short.

Our requirements for dry cask storage can be found in 10 CFR Part 72. All structures, systems and components important to safety must meet quality standards for design, fabrication and testing. And they must be structurally able to withstand wind, rain, snow and ice, temperature extremes, hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires and explosions.

Fuel pellets, rods, and casks_r9Part 72 and related NRC guidance on casks and storage facilities also detail specific engineering requirements. Casks must be designed to keep water out so the fuel can’t have a chain reaction, as it would in a reactor. The casks must also shield workers and the public from radiation. They must safely remove the heat remaining in the spent fuel. And the materials used in dry casks and their physical properties must be well-understood and analyzed.

The NRC has dozens of experts in different scientific and engineering disciplines whose job is to review cask applications (which can be hundreds of pages long) and the detailed technical designs they contain. We will explain in more detail in later blog posts what our experts look for and how they go about approving a cask design.

Testing Spent Fuel Transport Casks Using Scale Models

Bernard White
Senior Project Manager
Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation

Before casks can be used to transport the most radioactive cargo—including spent nuclear fuel—the NRC requires them to undergo a thorough safety evaluation. Casks are evaluated for their ability to withstand vibration, water spray, free fall, stacking, penetration and fire. A cask must be able to contain and shield the spent fuel and keep it in a safe configuration under both normal and accident conditions. Typically, spent fuel casks are certified through a combination of engineering analyses and scale model or component testing.

People often ask why the NRC allows designers to test scale models instead of requiring tests on full-sized casks. The bottom line is scale-model testing provides the necessary information for the NRC staff to know that a cask loaded with spent fuel can be transported safely, even in the event of an accident.

scalemodel2First, it is important to understand what information comes out of these tests. Test casks are fitted with sensors to measure acceleration. These accelerometers are similar to the ones used in smart phones, video game remotes and pedometers to respond to the movements of the user. Knowing the cask’s acceleration allows designers and the NRC to understand the forces different parts of the cask will experience in different types of impacts. The design engineer generally calculates these impact forces first by hand or by computer. Tests on a scale model can be used to check the accuracy of these analyses.

Engineers follow a similar process to safety-test airplanes, ships, bridges, buildings and other large structures. Scale-model testing is a proven and accepted practice across engineering disciplines, and may be one of the oldest engineering design tools. (Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman builders are known to have built small models to assist in planning structures.) Today, models allow oversized structures to be examined in wind tunnels, under different weight loads and on shake tables to provide key inputs into design and safety reviews.

Cost savings is a factor, but not the most important one. The biggest reason for using scale models is practicality. Transport casks for spent nuclear fuel are typically in the 25-ton to 125-ton range. There are very few testing facilities in the world that can put a 125-ton cask through the required tests.

For example, during 30-foot drop test, the test cask must strike the surface in the position that would cause the most severe damage. Cask designers often perform several drops to ensure they identify the correct position. After the 30-foot drop, the cask is dropped 40 inches onto a cylindrical puncture bar, then placed in a fully-engulfing fire for 30 minutes. Casks are also immersed in water to ensure they don’t leak. Measurements from these tests are plugged into computer programs that analyze the cask structure in great detail.

This analysis can determine the stresses placed on cask closure bolts, canisters and baskets that hold the spent fuel in place, and the spent fuel assemblies themselves. Computer simulations can be run for different scenarios, providing maximum flexibility to designers in understanding how best to design different parts of a cask’s structure.

In addition, NRC regulations specify that in the 30-foot drop test, the cask must hit an “unyielding” surface. This means the cask itself, which may be fitted with “impact limiters,” has to absorb all the damage. The impact limiters work much like the bumper that protects a car in a collision. The target surface cannot dent, crack or break in any way. In a real-world accident, a 125-ton cask would damage any surface significantly. It requires considerably more engineering work to achieve an unyielding surface for a full-sized cask than for a scale model, with no measurable advantage. The rule-of-thumb for testing is the impact target should be 10 times the mass of the object that will strike it. So a 125-ton cask would need to hit a 1,250 ton surface. A 30-ton cask would only need a 300-ton target.

Scale models are easier to handle and can be used efficiently for many drop orientations to meet the multiple test requirements. If a test needs to be run again, it can be done much more easily with a scale model. Design changes are also more easily tested on models. Together with extensive analyses of a cask’s ability to meet our regulatory requirements, the information from these tests allows the NRC to decide whether a cask can safely transport the radioactive contents.

Dry Cask Storage – The Basics

Michele Sampson
Chief, Spent Fuel Licensing Branch
Division of Spent Fuel Management

Fuel pellets, rods, and casks_r9You may have read our recent Science 101 posts in which we explained the basics of nuclear fuel and what happens when it is taken out of the reactor. We mentioned storing it in a pool, something every reactor in this country does immediately after removing the fuel. Today we want to talk about the option of storing spent nuclear fuel in dry casks.

Pools can only hold so much spent fuel. As they began filling up, utilities started looking for other ways to manage their fuel. A handful of companies developed dry storage systems. The idea is that after the fuel spends some time cooling in the pool, it can be loaded into a cask that is sealed to keep the radioactive material inside and protected.

At its most basic, a dry storage system is a cylinder that is lowered into the pool and filled with spent fuel. When full, the cylinder is raised and dried before it is sealed and placed outdoors. There are many varieties of spent fuel storage casks. All storage casks need to manage the spent fuel’s heat and contain its radioactivity, and to prevent nuclear fission (the chain reaction that allows a reactor to produce heat). The casks must resist earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, temperature extremes and other scenarios.

Casks come in different sizes. They are tall enough to hold spent fuel, which can be 14 feet long, and they can weigh up to 150 tons—as much as 50 midsize cars. In fact, plants may need a special crane that can handle heavy loads to be able to lift a loaded cask full of water out of their pool for drying. After the casks are dried and filled with helium, robotic equipment welds them closed to keep doses to workers as low as possible. Then the canisters are tested to ensure they are sealed.

And once the dry, welded canister is placed inside thick shielding, the plants use a special transporter to move the cask outdoors to where it will be stored. At that point, the radioactivity from the cask must be less than 25 millirem per year at the site boundary. That means the highest dose to someone standing at the fence for a full year would be about what you would get going around the world in an airplane. The actual dose at the site boundary is typically much lower. As of December 2014, just over 2,000 casks have been loaded and are safely storing nearly 84,000 spent fuel assemblies.

Cask designers must show their cask systems meet our regulatory requirements. The NRC staff reviews their applications in detail. We only issue an approval to systems that we know can perform safely.

Most dry storage systems in use today have the spent fuel placed into an inner metal canister that is welded shut, then placed into a large metal or metal-and-concrete cask. The canisters are designed so they can be removed and put into transportation casks for eventual shipment offsite. Some casks store the fuel horizontally, the others vertically.

drystoragegraphic)The NRC inspects the design, manufacturing and use of dry casks. These inspections ensure licensees and vendors are following safety and security requirements and meeting the terms of their licenses and quality assurance programs. NRC inspectors also observe practice runs before utilities begin moving their spent fuel into dry casks.

There are strict security requirements in place to protect the stored fuel. Security has multiple layers, including the ability to detect and respond to an intrusion. There have been no known or suspected attempts to sabotage cask storage facilities.

Since the first casks were loaded in 1986, dry storage has released no radiation that affected the public or contaminated the environment. Tests on spent fuel and cask components after years in dry storage confirm that the systems are providing safe storage.

The NRC also analyzed the risks from loading and storing spent fuel in dry casks. That study found the potential health risks are very, very small. To ensure continued safe dry storage of spent fuel, the NRC is further studying how the fuel and storage systems perform over time. The NRC is also staying on top of related research planned by the Department of Energy and nuclear industry.

We’ll talk about “high burnup spent fuel,” which is receiving a lot of attention at shutdown reactor sites, in an upcoming blog post.


NRC Science 101 – About Spent Nuclear Fuel Part II

Greg Casto
Branch Chief
Division of Reactor Safety Systems
science_101_squeakychalkOur last post talked about the fuel that powers nuclear reactors. Today, we’ll talk about what happens to that fuel when it’s removed from a reactor.

You’ll recall that fuel becomes very hot and very radioactive as it is used in the reactor core to heat water. After about five years, the fuel is no longer useful and is removed. Reactor operators have to manage the heat and radioactivity that remains in the “spent fuel” after it’s taken out of the reactor. In the U.S., every reactor has at least one pool on the plant site where spent fuel is placed for storage. Plant personnel move the spent fuel underwater from the reactor to the pool. Over time, as the spent fuel is stored in the pool, it becomes cooler as the radioactivity decays away.

These pools contain an enormous quantity of water—enough to cover the fuel by about 20 feet. The water serves two purposes: it cools the fuel and shields workers at the plant from radioactivity. Having 20 feet of water above the fuel means there is a lot more water than is needed for cooling and shielding the workers. Also, because of the extra water and the simple design of the pool, there is a lot of time for plant personnel to add water to the pool if needed for any reason.

fuelpoolThe pools are built to meet strict NRC safety requirements. They have very thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls and stainless-steel liners, and are protected by security personnel. There are no drains that would allow the water level to drop or the pool to become empty. The plants have a variety of extra water sources and equipment to replenish water that evaporates over time, or in case there is a leak. Plant personnel are also trained and prepared to quickly respond to a problem. They keep their skills sharp by routinely practicing their emergency plans and procedures.

When the plants were designed, the pools were intended to provide temporary onsite storage. The idea was for the spent fuel to sit in the pool for a few years to cool before it would be shipped offsite to be “reprocessed,” or separated so usable portions could be recycled into new fuel. But reprocessing didn’t end up being an option for nuclear power plants and the pools began to fill up.

In the early 1980s, nuclear plants began to look for ways to increase the amount of spent fuel they could store at the plant site. One way was to replace spent fuel storage racks in the pools with racks containing a special material that allowed spent fuel to be packed closer together. Another way was to place older, cooler and less radioactive fuel in dry storage casks that could be stored in specially built facilities at the plant site. We’ll talk more about dry spent fuel storage in future blog posts.

Most plants today use both re-designed storage racks and dry storage facilities to store spent fuel. All storage methods must be reviewed in detail and approved by the NRC before a plant is allowed to change storage methods.


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