“BUCHANAN – Indian Point officials want to shuffle some of their used uranium fuels rods between nuclear reactors to create storage space, but federal regulators say they’ll need to see a lot more details before they’ll approve such a plan.
“This has not been done with any frequency in the United States,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said. “So a lot of questions need to be answered. It is unusual and that’s why it is going to take a great deal of study.”
A meeting is set at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Maryland headquarters today to go over details of the proposal, which hasn’t officially been submitted, Sheehan said.
Indian Point technically would be seeking a license amendment, which can take two years to complete and could involve public hearings, but the plant’s owner, Entergy Nuclear, wants a fast-track version that would allow the move to be completed before a refueling outage in early 2011.
Local emergency officials say they’re always wary about moving radioactive uranium, regardless of the regulations in place.
“We’re concerned about the number of times the fuel’s being handled,” said Anthony Sutton, Westchester County’s commissioner of emergency services. “We want to know in detail what they’re proposing.”
Sutton said he expected that Westchester County would push for a hearing on the amendment.
Sheehan said the industry’s history of moving fuel is “very good” but there have been problems.
He said a year ago at an Entergy plant in Vermont, neglected maintenance on the brakes of a refueling crane caused it to fail as it was lowering fuel a few inches from the floor of a spent fuel pool. No fuel was damaged and there were no injuries, Sheehan said, but the agency required a complete investigation of the incident.
Handling spent uranium rods has become a discipline in its own right since the federal government failed to deliver a national depository for the still volatile material at the end of 1998 and the plan for a storage location at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is all but dead.
Sheehan said the industry has moved to store fuel at individual plants, saying officials expect to be able to do so for 100 years.
Indian Point has been aggressively moving spent fuel rods from its defunct Unit 1 and its Unit 2 storage pools to permanent storage containers that sit on a cement pad at the Buchanan site.
The canisters, however, weigh about 200 tons and a crane that is in use at Unit 3 is insufficient to handle such weight. Plant engineers want to offload smaller canisters of uranium rods to Unit 2, which has a crane big enough to handle the 200-ton permanent containers.
Industry officials say creating storage space in spent fuel pools is important because it allows for the most efficient use of fuel and provides flexibility in case of emergency.
Indian Point 3 no longer has adequate space to empty its reactor completely, according to Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi.
During fueling outages, for example, workers could empty the reactor like a homeowner cleaning a closet and then put the rods back according to a specific plan that maximizes fuel efficiency.
Shuffling materials around within the reactor takes more orchestration and time, valuable commodities when a plant can make $1 million a day hooked up to the electrical grid.
Nappi said the company plans to submit its application soon and basically wants to be able to work with canisters that contain 12 fuel-rod assemblies rather than the 32-assembly permanent canisters.
“It’s just a smaller version, made by the same company that we been using,” Nappi said. “They have a lot of experience in the industry. We’re eager to work with the NRC to make sure they have what they need.”
Sheehan said the regulatory agency would be proceeding on this issue in its normal, thorough way.
“You’re talking about moving fuel between buildings,” Sheehan said. “It would be in the protected area, but it would still be outside.”
Riverkeeper, which opposes the continued operation of Indian Point, said nuclear plant officials were choosing profits over safety.
“This convoluted (fuel-shuffling) process may make financial sense, but it defies common sense and may increase the likelihood of an accident while moving the waste,” said Phillip Musegaas, Riverkeeper’s Indian Point specialist.”
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