U.S. NRC Blog

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A Bit of NRC Myth Busting — Part I

Eric Stahl
Acting Public Affairs Officer

Facebook1We’ve taken a few of the interesting comments we’ve received on our Facebook page and posed them to our experts for their take on the question, suggestion or assertion. Here are their responses.

One Facebook user suggested that nuclear waste could be “encased in thick high strength concrete, then dropped into a churning volcano. It would sink into the magma and over a time it would disperse.” (We took the liberty of cleaning up the typos.)

Spent fuel must be handled and stored with care due to its radioactivity. The only way radioactive waste becomes harmless is through decay, which can take hundreds of thousands of years. As a result, the waste must be stored and disposed of in a way that provides protection to the public for a very long time.

PrintDropping spent fuel into an active volcano would run counter to this idea. Radioactive material could be released into the atmosphere, causing a hazard to people and the environment.

Another Facebook user, on our post about renewing licenses for nuclear power plants beyond the original license renewal, wrote this: “Beyond 60 years They are about to blow now you idiots.”

Contrary to what Hollywood often presents in television and movies, U.S. nuclear reactors are designed with numerous safety features, including containment buildings that continue to protect people and the environment. The nuclear fuel can’t explode, and many reinforcing safety systems would prevent or control the buildup of flammable gases during an accident.

NRC inspectors spend more than 6,000 hours (on average) performing inspection-related activities at each reactor site. In addition, the NRC has a robust aging management program to ensure that the country’s oldest reactors continue to operate safely. Keep in mind that regardless of the age of any reactor, the NRC has authority to address safety issues at any time.

Another Facebook commenter had concerns about the current dry cask storage system. He writes: “All that nuclear waste is being stored in the ground in what is supposed to be 5000 year containers, what if an earthquake hit the storage facility?”

All nuclear waste storage containers, known as “casks,” that are used to store spent fuel in the United States undergo a thorough safety review by the NRC before they’re certified for use. All casks licensed by the NRC must demonstrate their ability to withstand earthquakes and other natural hazards. Once the casks are put into use, they’re continuously monitored for leaks and periodically inspected by the NRC.

Come back tomorrow for Part II!


8 responses to “A Bit of NRC Myth Busting — Part I

  1. Mike Brennan May 19, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    I am disappointed the NRC would support the statement, “The only way radioactive waste becomes harmless is through decay, which can take hundreds of thousands of years.” While it is true that the uranium and some transuranics have very long half-lives, the fission fragments that make fresh spent fuel radioactively dangerous generally have much shorter half lives. Depending on the type of fuel and who long it was in the reactor it should decay to about the original activity of the fuel in about 300 years, and be safe to handle with modest precautions in less than 100 years. The idea that it has to be isolated from the environment longer human history is not supported by the facts.

  2. Donna Gilmore May 12, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Regarding renewing nuclear reactor licenses, there are critical parts of nuclear plants that are not inspected and not maintained, because it’s difficult or impossible to do so or for possibly other reasons. These parts were engineers for a 40 year lifespan, yet as we know, parts are failing even before the engineered lifespan. At recent NRC technical meetings regarding nuclear reactor license renewal, these issues were discussed.

  3. Donna Gilmore May 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

    The NRC continues to approve thin-walled (mostly 1/2″ thick) spent nuclear fuel canisters that cannot be inspected (even on the outside), cannot be maintained, and cannot be repaired. See links to NRC documents and government sponsored reports substantiating these facts at SanOnofreSafety.org.

    There is no NRC requirement for continuous monitoring for radiation leaks. The NRC only requires quarterly monitoring of radiation levels near the casks. In the initial NRC 20-year canister/cask certification, aging issues and aging management issues are not evaluated or certified by the NRC. Neither are transportation requirements. NRC transport regulations require intact canisters (e.g., not even partial cracks).

    These thin-walled stainless steel canisters are susceptible to short-term stress corrosion cracking. A similar component (a waste water tank) at the Koeberg nuclear power plant leaked in 17 years from cracks that were deeper (up to 0.61″) than the thickness of most U.S. thin-walled canisters (0.50″). A Diablo Canyon canister was found to have all the conditions for cracking in a 2-year old canister. No one knows if any of the current U.S. canisters have started cracking or how deep the cracks might be, since they cannot be inspected for cracks. We won’t know until AFTER they leak radiation into the environment. Most U.S. canisters have been in use less than 10 years.

    Most of the rest of the world uses thick-walled metal casks (~ 10″ to almost 20″ thick) that do not have any of the above problems. They meet U.S. and international manufacturing standards for storage and transport. The NRC has not approved them for transport because no vendor has requested the NRC evaluate them for transport. It costs vendors millions of dollars for NRC certification, so they will only seek NRC approval once this becomes a need (e.g., a customer requests this). The NRC has approved thick-walled casks for storage. However, utilities have migrated away from thick casks due to costs. Unless the NRC raises its minimum dry storage standards, the U.S. will continue to have nuclear waste stored in unsafe canisters that could start failing in the near future.

    There are no seismic evaluations done or required on partially cracked canisters. NRC Director of the Spent Fuel Management Division, Mark Lombard, knows all this. At SanOnofreSafety.org see videos with Mark Lombard and Holtec canister vendor CEO Dr. Kris Singh admitting these canisters cannot be inspected. Dr. Singh admits even if you could find a crack, even a microscopic crack will release millions of curies of radiation into the environment; and even if you found a way to repair the cracks robotically, it would only introduce another area for cracking, so he doesn’t recommend repairing even if you could.

    Once spent fuel pools are empty, the NRC approves destruction of the spent fuel pools, even though this is the only currently approved method to retrieve fuel from failing canisters or otherwise deal with problem canisters or problem fuel. Canister vendors proposed loading leaking canisters into a thick cask (like Russian Dolls). However, according to NRC’s Mark Lombard, they have not submitted an application to the NRC to approve any casks for this purpose. There would need to be thermal and other evaluations done. And then how do you ever transport that cask? Or replace the canister or remove the fuel?

    Each of these canisters contains more Cesium-137 than was released from Chernobyl. There are over 2000 of these “Chernobyl” cans stored at U.S. nuclear power plants and more being added every year.

    • James Richard Tyrer September 14, 2016 at 7:31 am

      Did you deliberately leave out the important facts to mislead people or, don’t you know the important facts about Stress Corrosion Cracking of Stainless Steel? Reading your post, you give the impression that this just somehow happens for no apparent reason. However, Stainless Steel doesn’t just corrode. It has to be chemically attacked for it to corrode. The NRC has been looking into this and they believe that the corrosion is caused by chloride. This is something that you didn’t mention. And, there has to be tensile stress on the Stainless Steel sheet metal.


      Also, I note that “radiation leaks” don’t exist in the context that you are talking about. You need to learn more about radioactivity and radiation so that you at least can get the grammar correct — understand how it works.

  4. djysrv May 11, 2016 at 9:28 am

    The Apollo 13 RTGs were disposed of this way. The devices were engineered to survive a failed launch .so there is little risk of any PU-238 contamination from them. http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/aerospace-engineering/nuclear-propulsion/will-anyone-recover-apollo-13s-plutonium/

  5. Anonymous May 10, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    Nonsense, in a short time rockets will become ecconomicaly viable for radioactive waste disposal

  6. Malcolm Patterson May 10, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    Your first reader suggested disposing of radioactive waste in magma. For the reasons you mentioned, a volcano is not suitable. On the other hand, depositing nuclear waste in the ocean floor could achieve the same objective, though it would take a very long time. If we were to place the waste in a subduction zone (where the seabed is sliding under another plate of the Earth’s crust) tectonics would eventually move it into the Earth’s mantle. Oceanic disposal of nuclear waste is currently forbidden, but it may be reconsidered periodically, starting in just a few years.

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