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Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report (2006)


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Suggested Citation:"D.1 DESIGN FOR A CLOSED FUEL CYCLE." National Research Council. 2006. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11263.


There are 103 commercial power reactors operating in the United States at this time. Almost all of them are operating with spent fuel pools that are too small to accommodate cumulative spent fuel discharges. This short appendix was prepared to provide a historical background for power reactor fuel operations and pool and dry-cask storage of spent fuel.


The first large generation of commercial reactors in the United States were almost all light water reactors (LWRs), that is, nuclear reactors that use ordinary water to cool the core and to moderate the neutrons emitted by fission. The hydrogen atoms in the water coolant moderate, or slow down the fission-emitted neutrons to an energy level that is more likely to cause fission when the neutron strikes a fissile atom. These reactors were designed, developed, and licensed in the 1960s and 1970s, although many were not completed until the 1980s. Their design power output increased rapidly, as it did for non-nuclear power plants, in order to achieve economies of scale. Thus, the earlier plants in this generation were designed to produce 500–900 megawatts of electrical power (MWe) while later units increased to 1000–1200 MWe. The number of LWRs built and ordered by the U.S. industry began to approach 200. All of these plants were being designed for a closed fuel cycle, that is, for the uranium oxide fuel, enriched to 2–5 percent uranium-235, to be loaded and “burned” to a level of 20–30 gigawatt-days per metric ton of uranium (GWd/MTU), then reprocessed in commercial plants to separate the still usable fissionable, or fissile, materials in the spent fuel from the radioactive waste. The reprocessing plants would recover the fissile plutonium-239 formed from uranium-238 during reactor operations and residual fissile uranium-235 for use as fuel in LWRs and later in breeder reactors (USNRC, 1976).

By the mid-1970s commercial reprocessing plants were built, under construction, or planned in New York, Illinois, South Carolina, and Tennessee, with a combined projected capacity to reprocess more than 6000 MTU of spent fuel per year. For comparison, a large LWR discharges about 20 MTU of spent fuel at a refueling. By this time the price of fresh uranium was dropping and the cost of fuel reprocessing made it difficult for recycle fuel to compete with fresh fuel. Also, there was controversy about the risk of fissile material diversion if recycled plutonium was moved in commercial traffic. Both existing fuel reprocessing plants withdrew from licensing for technical reasons and then, on April 7, 1977, President Carter issued a policy statement that “we will defer indefinitely the commercial reprocessing and recycling of the plutonium produced in the U.S. nuclear power programs.” The statement went on to say: “The plant at Barnwell, South Carolina, will receive neither federal encouragement nor funding for its completion as a reprocessing facility.” After consultation with the White House, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) terminated its Final Generic Environmental Statement on the Use of Recycled Plutonium in Mixed Oxide Fuel in Light-Water Cooled Reactors (GESMO) proceedings.

Thus, the U.S. nuclear industry was immediately changed from a closed fuel cycle, with recycle, to an open or once-through fuel cycle with the fuel loaded into the reactor in

Suggested Citation:"D.1 DESIGN FOR A CLOSED FUEL CYCLE." National Research Council. 2006. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11263.
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In response to a request from Congress, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Homeland Security sponsored a National Academies study to assess the safety and security risks of spent nuclear fuel stored in cooling pools and dry casks at commercial nuclear power plants. The information provided in this book examines the risks of terrorist attacks using these materials for a radiological dispersal device. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel is an unclassified public summary of a more detailed classified book. The book finds that successful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are possible. A propagating fire in a pool could release large amounts of radioactive material, but rearranging spent fuel in the pool during storage and providing emergency water spray systems would reduce the likelihood of a propagating fire even under severe damage conditions. The book suggests that additional studies are needed to better understand these risks. Although dry casks have advantages over cooling pools, pools are necessary at all operating nuclear power plants to store at least the recently discharged fuel. The book explains it would be difficult for terrorists to steal enough spent fuel to construct a significant radiological dispersal device.

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