Dry Casks 101: Managing Heat

CASK_101finalCaylee Johanson
Mechanical Engineer

In this series we’ve been talking about storing spent nuclear fuel in dry casks. One major function of these casks is to cool the fuel. Keeping the spent fuel from getting too hot is one way to ensure casks will be safe. As the fuel cools, heat is transferred from inside the cask to the outside.

Our experts look at how the cask will perform this function. We require the cask and fuel to remain within a certain temperature range. Our review looks at four main areas:

Spent fuel releases heat as a result of its radioactive decay. This is called decay heat. A key function of dry storage casks is to move the decay heat from the cask to the outside environment to ensure the fuel and cask components do not get too hot. Our experts look at how that heat will move through the cask and into the environment.

The method used to remove heat has to be reliable and provable. Heat must also be removed in a way that is passive—meaning no electrical power or mechanical device is needed. Casks use conduction, convection and radiation to transfer the heat to the outside.

Heat Radiation Transparent 2The graphic shows the three heat transfer methods. As you can see, conduction transfers heat from the burner through the pot to the handle. The process of heat rising (and cold falling) is known as convection. And the heat you feel coming off a radiator, or a hot stove, is known as radiant heat.

These methods work the same way in a storage cask. Where the canister or metal structure containing the fuel touches the fuel assemblies, heat is conducted toward the outside of the cask. Most casks have vents that allow outside air to flow naturally into the cask (but not into the canister) and cool the canister containing the fuel (convection). And most casks would be warm from radiant heat if you stood next to them. (The heat generated by a loaded spent fuel cask is typically less than is given off by a home-heating system.)

We limit how hot the cask components and fuel materials can get because we want to protect the cladding, or the metal tube that holds the fuel pellets. Limiting the heat is one important way we can ensure the cladding doesn’t degrade. The cask must  keep spent fuel cladding below 752 degrees Fahrenheit during normal storage conditions—a limit that, based on the material properties of the cladding, will prevent it from degrading. The fuel must also remain below 1058 degrees in off-normal or accident conditions (such as if a cask were dropped while it is being positioned on the storage pad, or if a flood or snow were to block the vents).

We also confirm the pressure inside is below the design limit to make sure the pressure won’t impact the structure or operations. Our experts review applications for new cask designs carefully to verify the fuel cladding and cask component temperatures and the internal pressure will remain below specified limits.

Each storage cask is designed to withstand the effects from a certain amount of heat. This amount is called the heat load. We look at whether the designer correctly considered how the heat load will affect cask component and fuel temperatures. We review how this heat load was calculated.

We also verify that the cask designer looked at all the environmental conditions that can be expected because these will also affect the cask component and fuel temperatures. These may include wind speed and direction, temperature extremes, and a site’s elevation (which can affect internal pressure). To make sure the right values are considered, we verify they match the historical records for a site or region.

We review all of the methods used to prove that the storage system can handle the specified heat loads. We also verify any computer codes used in the analysis and the values that were plugged in. For example, we look at the material properties for cask components used in the code. We look at calculations for temperatures and pressure. We make sure the computer codes are the latest versions.

And we only allow designers to use codes that have been endorsed by experts. We might run our own analysis using a different computer code to see if our results match the application.

The analysis and review allow us to see whether and how the dry cask will meet the temperature limits. Our review ensures the temperature is maintained and the cladding is protected. Finally, our review confirms the cask designer used acceptable methods to analyze or test the system and evaluate the thermal design. If we have any questions or concerns, we ask the designer for more information.

Only when we are satisfied that our requirements are met will we approve the thermal analysis in a cask application.

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.


When Problems Are a Sign of Success

Chris Allen
Project Manager
Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation

Can a problem show that our regulatory system works? If you don’t think so, read on.

Two weeks ago, the NRC published an “information notice” about moisture causing problems for dry spent fuel storage casks. Information notices are one way the NRC communicates formally with licensees. We send these notices when we want all licensees to be aware of a particular problem found with just one or only a handful of licensed facilities or equipment so they can prevent similar problems.

Spent fuel dry casks
Spent fuel dry casks

The problem in this case centers on dry spent fuel storage casks that store used nuclear fuel after it’s been cooled for several years in spent fuel pools. The NRC reviews the designs of these casks to make sure they will safely cool the fuel and contain the radiation it emits.

In this case, two different sites using two different storage designs had unanticipated problems on the outside of the system caused by moisture. The structural integrity of the systems was never compromised and the radiation levels at both sites remained very low.

The first problem dates to 2007 at a facility in Idaho that stores spent fuel debris from the damaged Three Mile Island reactor. The system uses thick concrete for shielding and protection from earthquakes and other natural forces. The operator saw that cracks in the concrete—originally thought to be cosmetic and trivial—were spreading. The licensee’s evaluation found water had entered bolt holes on top of the casks, froze, thawed and cracked the concrete. The evaluation also identified repairs, ways to prevent more water from getting in and a program for monitoring cracking.

The second problem, at the Peach Bottom reactor site in Pennsylvania, was identified on October 11, 2010, when an alarm sounded. That alarm was designed to be an early warning that the helium inside might be leaking. On examination, the licensee found rust beneath a metal weather cover and moisture around the bolts holding the cask lid in place. An outer lid seal was leaking more helium than the NRC license allowed. An inner seal kept the spent fuel and radioactivity confined inside the cask.

From the time these issues were discovered, we made information available through licensee event reports, NRC inspection reports, letters and other communications with licensees. Our licensees and some trade publications that follow NRC activities closely knew of the issues.

The licensees talked with one another as well at industry-wide workshops and conferences. And our inspectors, who also talk with one another, always look for evidence that dry storage casks are in good condition.

So how does this mean the process worked?

Alarms like the one at Peach Bottom and follow-up evaluations like the one in Idaho are examples of the monitoring and periodic examinations that the NRC requires all cask users to perform. These provide warnings long before a problem could develop that might affect public health and safety or the environment. We also require periodic examinations of dry storage casks so any potential issues can be identified early.

The NRC stayed up-to-date as the licensees learned more about the cause of their problems, how to prevent such problems in the future, and how to fix the problems on their existing systems. In this case, the NRC took the extra step of issuing the information notice even though communication between the NRC and licensees as well as among licensees meant that, when the information notice came out last week, it was actually “old news.”