Taking a Look at an Independent Review of Spent Fuel Pool Safety and Security

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

 A recently published National Academy of Sciences report includes the academy’s latest thoughts on enhancing the safety and security of spent nuclear fuel storage. The NRC gave NAS the funding for the study at the direction of Congress. This report is Phase 2 of the NAS work; we’ll recap Phase 1 in a moment.

The agency sponsored the two-phase NAS study to identify lessons learned from the Fukushima accident and to follow up on previous NAS recommendations on spent fuel safety and security. The earlier NAS work looked at these same topics after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and led to a 2004 report (our response to Congress about the 2004 report is on the agency’s website).

As the NAS gathered information for the latest report, they talked with NRC staff and received NRC documents related to relevant regulatory programs and requirements.

Our first look at the Phase 2 NAS report did not identify any safety or security issues that would require immediate action by the NRC. U.S. nuclear power plant security is extremely robust; the plants are some of the best protected facilities in the world. We have a long record of studying and analyzing the safety and security of spent fuel storage. Some of these studies have resulted in security enhancements. For example, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NRC’s security assessments resulted in improvements to security at nuclear power plants, and strengthened the plants’ coordination with other federal and state agencies in responding to security threats.

Our post-Fukushima requirements for U.S. reactors have enhanced spent fuel pool safety. For example, we required plants to improve the ability of operators to monitor the water level in spent fuel pools. We also required plants to develop new strategies for adding water to these pools to keep them cool, even under the conditions that might exist following an extreme natural event, like a severe earthquake or flood.

Looking at all the available information, we remain confident U.S. spent fuel is safely and securely stored. The Phase 2 NAS report looks ahead to some areas that NAS believes warrant further study or action. We’ll evaluate the NAS report and its recommendations to see if we need to take any further action in the long run. The staff plans to provide the Commission with its assessment of the NAS Phase 2 report later this year.

We know the public has questions about safely and securely storing spent nuclear fuel, so the NRC website includes key points and frequently asked questions and answers. We expect to update this information once we’ve finished assessing the NAS report.

We looked at the NAS Phase 1 report in 2014. That report looked at the causes of the Fukushima accident and also identified lessons for improving nuclear power plant safety systems and operations. The staff provided the Commission an assessment of the Phase 1 report in SECY-15-0059. In our final assessment of the Phase 1 report, we determined that all of the NAS recommendations were being addressed by completed and ongoing NRC activities.

NRC Actions Stack up Well Against International Reviews

William Orders
Senior Project Manager
Japan Lessons Learned Division

Ever since the March 2011 nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, regulators around the world have asked “what have we learned?” The Fukushima accident led the nuclear power industry worldwide to reconsider how we approached nuclear safety in the case of extreme natural events. Regulators and the nuclear industry have put a high priority on addressing the accident’s lessons and implementing safety enhancements.

Last year, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, issued a report that took another look at the accident and detailed what was learned. The NRC has reviewed the report to see if it might lead us to additional actions here in the United States.

At this point, we see that either the NRC, the U.S. government, or the nuclear industry are already addressing the IAEA report’s lessons. U.S. actions on these lessons are consistent with the international community’s approach to the issues. A more detailed comparison of the report’s recommendations with relevant U.S. actions is available here.

JLD vertical CReviews of the accident have focused on the effects of earthquakes and floods, as well as positioning plants to deal safely with a complete loss of off-site and back-up power. Nuclear power plants worldwide are addressing these issues with steps that include:

  • re-examining external hazards,
  • improving electrical systems,
  • adding ways to cool the fuel in the reactor core,
  • protecting the reactor containment,
  • adding ways to cool the  spent fuel in storage pools, and
  • developing capabilities to quickly provide equipment and assistance from on-site or off-site emergency preparedness facilities.

The NRC and our international counterparts have compared our post-Fukushima approaches before. In 2014, an IAEA team report looked at several of the lessons the NRC has learned from the accident. The report, after examining our efforts at that time, concluded the NRC has “acted promptly and effectively.” The team also said the NRC’s inspections on Fukushima-related issues were “exemplary.”

As the NRC continues reviewing the IAEA 2015 report in detail, we are heartened that our international counterparts are all addressing the same concerns. Our collective actions are enhancing safety worldwide.

More information on the NRC’s response to the Fukushima accident can be found on NRC’s Japan Lessons Learned website. A description of the accident is available here.