“BUCHANAN – Federal nuclear regulators are requiring Indian Point officials to open a nearly 20-year-old storage container for radioactive parts to verify that a tiny quantity of uranium 235 is accounted for properly.
The unstable form of uranium can and has been used to make atomic bombs, though Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Indian Point officials said the amounts in question at the nuclear plant are many thousands of times too small to make a bomb.
Still, the NRC wants to make sure it knows the exact locations and quantities of all the radioactive material under its control.
“We’re especially concerned about any material that’s in a spent fuel pool,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said. “This material needs to be tightly controlled.”
The NRC has not cited Indian Point on this issue and Sheehan said the agency would wait until the container is opened next month before deciding on possible enforcement.
“These containers are supposed to be opened on an annual basis, unless they have a tamper-resistant seal,” Sheehan said. “We wouldn’t be looking at this if this weren’t part of the regulation. They should have done a better job of maintaining records of what they had in the pool.”
Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns Indian Point, said there are eight used detectors, in 2- to 3-foot sections, located in a bolted container in the spent fuel pool of Indian Point 3.
The rods are part of old mechanisms used by the previous owners to check the power levels of the nuclear reactor.
Steets said the 32 parts contain 8/10,000s of a gram of uranium 235 each. Combined, they make .025 percent of a gram.
According to the Web site “The Nuclear Weapon Archive,” (nuclearweaponarchive.org), the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima on Aug. 8, 1945, and known as “Little Boy,” used 700 grams of uranium 235 in nuclear fission, to create an explosion equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT dynamite.
Since the storage container predated the company and was bolted shut, company officials believed it didn’t need to be opened as part of their annual inspection of the pool, Steets said. NRC records indicate that the container was filled in 1988-89.
Steets said company officials only recently learned that the NRC expected containers such as this one to be inspected because though the container is bolted, it is not completely tamper-resistant.
Because of the small amount of uranium 235 and the complex process of opening the container, the company opted to check the contents during its annual inspection next month.
NRC officials approved that schedule, Sheehan said, because of the danger of working in the spent fuel pool and the need for proper equipment and expertise, which agency officials said sometimes takes time to bring in to the plant.
With the heightened level of public interest in Indian Point since workers there discovered radioactive tritium and strontium 90 leaks, NRC officials have been notifying local and federal elected representatives of all developments at the nuclear plant.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-Harrison, has been trying to get the plant closed down for years and is fighting its relicensing application. She said the latest development is a result of poor management of the plant.
“At a time when intelligence indicates security risks are at critical high, we can’t afford to have loosey-goosey security measures at nuclear power plants located in the most densely populated areas of the country,” Lowey said. “The incompetence at Indian Point imperils an entire region and absolutely requires that the plant be shut down.””
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