After a power reactor is shut down, its nuclear fuel continues to produce heat from radioactive decay (see FIGURE 1.2). Although only one-third of the fuel in the reactor core is replaced during each refueling cycle, operators commonly offload the entire core (especially at pressurized water reactors [PWRs]) into the pool during refueling4 to facilitate loading of fresh fuel or for inspection or repair of the reactor vessel and internals. Heat generation in the pool is at its highest point just after the full core has been offloaded.

Pool heat loads can be quite high, as exemplified by a “typical” boiling water reactor (BWR) which was used in some of the analyses discussed elsewhere in this chapter (this BWR is hereafter referred to as the “reference BWR”). This pool has approximately 3800 locations for storage of spent fuel assemblies, about 3000 of which are occupied by four-and-one-third reactor cores (13 one-third-core offloads) in a pool approximately 35 feet wide, 40 feet long, and 39 feet deep (10.7 meters wide, 12.2 meters long, and 11.9 meters deep) with a water capacity of almost 400,000 gallons (1.51 million liters). According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff, the total decay heat in the spent fuel pool is 3.9 megawatts (MW) ten days after a one-third-core offload. The vast majority of this heat is from decay in the newly discharged spent fuel. Heat loads would be substantially higher in spent fuel pools that contained a full-core offload.

Although spent fuel pools have a variety of designs, they share one common characteristic: Almost all spent fuel pools are located outside of the containment structure that holds the reactor pressure vessel.5 In some reactor designs, the spent fuel pools are contained within the reactor building,6 which is typically constructed of about 2 feet of reinforced concrete (see FIGURE 3.1). In other designs, however, one or more walls of the spent fuel pool may be located on the exterior wall of an auxiliary building that is located adjacent to the containment building (see FIGURE 3.2). As described in more detail below, some pools are built at or below grade, whereas others are located at the top of the reactor building.

The enclosing superstructures above the pool are typically steel, industrial-type buildings designed to house cranes that are used to move reactor components, spent fuel, and spent fuel casks. These superstructures above the pool are designed to resist damage from seismic loads but not from large tomado-bome missiles (e.g., cars and telephone poles), which would usually impact the superstructures at low angles (i.e-, moving horizontally). In contrast the typical spent fuel pool is robust. The pool walls and the external walls of the building housing the pool (these external walls may incorporate one or more pool walls in some plants) are designed for seismic stability and to resist horizontal


A 1996 survey by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC, 1996) found that the majority of commercial power reactors routinely offload their entire core to the spent fuel pool during refueling outages. The practice is more common among PWRs than BWRs, which tend to offload only that fuel that is to be replaced, but some BWRs do offload the full core. In response to a committee inquiry, an Energy Resources International staff member confirmed that this is still the case today.


The exceptions in the United States are the Mark III BWRs, which have two pools, one of which is inside the containment As discussed in Appendix C, spent fuel pools at German commercial nuclear power plants also are located inside reactor containment structures.


A PWR containment structure is a large, domed building that houses the reactor pressure vessel, the steam generators, and other equipment. In a BWR, the containment structure houses less equipment, is located closer in to the pressure vessel, and sits inside a building called the reactor building, which also houses the spent fuel pool and safety-related equipment to support the reactor.

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