did receive. The committee was able to draw upon other information sources both domestic and foreign,6 including the experience and expertise of its members, to fill some of the information gaps.
1.3 REPORT ROADMAP
The sections that follow in this chapter provide background on storage of spent nuclear fuel, which may be helpful to non-experts in understanding the issues discussed in the following chapters. The other chapters are organized to explicitly address the four charges of the committee’s statement of task:
Chapter 2 addresses the last charge to the committee to “explicitly consider the risks of terrorist attacks on these materials and the risk these materials might be used to construct a radiological dispersal device.”
Chapter 3 addresses the first charge to the committee to examine the “potential safety and security risks of spent nuclear fuel presently stored in cooling pools at commercial reactor sites.”
Chapter 4 addresses the second and third charges to examine the “safety and security advantages, if any, of dry cask storage versus wet pool storage at these reactor sites” and the “potential safety and security advantages, if any, of dry cask storage using various single-, dual-, and multi-purpose cask designs.”
Chapter 5 concerns implementation of the recommendations in this report, specifically conceming timing and communication issues.
The appendixes provide supporting information, including a glossary and acronym list, descriptions of the committee’s meetings, and biographical sketches of the committee members.
1.4 BACKGROUND ON SPENT NUCLEAR FUEL AND ITS STORAGE
This section is provided for readers who are not familiar with the technical features of spent nuclear fuel and its storage. Other readers should skip directly to Chapter 2.
Spent nuclear fuel is fuel that has been irradiated or “burned” in the core of a nuclear reactor, in power reactors, the energy released from fission reactions in the nuclear fuel heats water7 to produce steam that drives turbines to generate electricity. Spent nuclear fuel from non-commercial reactors (such as research reactors, naval propulsion reactors, and Plutonium production reactors) is not considered in this study.
1.4.1 Nuclear Fuel
Almost all commercial reactor fuel in the United States is in the form of solid, cylindrical pellets of uranium dioxide. The pellets are about 0.4 to 0.65 inch (1.0 to 1.65 centimeters) in length and about 0.3 to 0.5 inch (0.3 to 1.25 centimeters) in diameter. The
pellets are loaded into tubes, called fuel cladding, made of a zirconium metal alloy, called zircaloy. A loaded tube, which is typically 11,5 to 14.75 feet (3.5 to 4.5 meters) in length, is called a fuel rod (also referred to as a fuel pin or fuel element). Fuel rods are bundled together, with a 0.12 to 0.18 inch (0.3 to 0.45 centimeter) space left between each for coolant to flow, to form a square fuel assembly (see FIGURE 1.1) measuring about 6 to 9 inches (15 to 23 centimeters) on a side.
Typical fuel assemblies for boiling water nuclear reactors (BWRs) hold 49 to 63 fuel rods, and fuel assemblies for pressurized water nuclear reactors (PWRs) hold 164 to 264 fuel rods.8 Depending on reactor design, typically between 190 and 750 assemblies, each weighing from 275 to 685 kg (600 to 1500 pounds), make up a power reactor core. New fuel assemblies (i.e., those that have not been irradiated in a reactor) do not require special cooling or radiation shielding; they can be moved with a crane in open air. Once in the reactor, however, the fuel undergoes nuclear fission and begins to generate the radioactive fission products and activation products that require shielding and cooling.
The uranium oxide fuel essentially is composed of two isotopes of uranium: Initially, about 3–5 percent9 by weight is fissile uranium (uranium-235), which is the component that sustains the fission chain reaction; and about 95–97 percent is uranium-238, which can capture a neutron to produce fissile plutonium and other radioactive heavy isotopes (actinides). Each fission event, whether in uranium or plutonium, releases energy and neutrons as the fissioning nucleus splits into two (and infrequently three) radioactive fragments, called fission products.
When the fissile material has been consumed to a level where it is no longer economically viable (typically 4.5 to 6 years of operation for current fuel designs), the fuel is considered spent and is removed from the reactor core. Spent fuel assemblies are highly radioactive. The decay of radioactive fission products and other constituents generates heat (called decay heat) and penetrating (gamma and neutron) radiation. Therefore cooling, shielding, and remote handling are required for spent nuclear fuel.
The amount of heat and radiation generated by a spent fuel assembly after its removal from a reactor depends on the number of fissions that have occurred in the fuel, called the burn-up, and the time that has elapsed since the fuel was removed from the reactor. The rate of decay-heat generation by spent reactor fuel and how it will change with time after the fuel is removed from the reactor can be calculated. The results of an example calculation are shown in FIGURE 1.2.
At discharge from the reactor, a spent fuel assembly generates on the order of tens of kilowatts of heat. Decay-heat production diminishes as very short-lived radionuclides decay away, dropping heat generation by a factor of 100 during the first year; dropping by another factor of 5 between year one and year five; and dropping about 40 percent between year five and year ten (see FIGURE 1.2). Within a year of discharge from the reactor, decay-heat production in spent nuclear fuel is dominated by four radionucfides: Ruthenium-106 (with a 372.6-day half-life), cerium-144 (284.4-day half-life), cesium-137 (30.2-year half-life),
and cesium-134 (2.1-year half-life) and their short-lived decay products contribute nearly 90 percent of the decay heat from a spent fuel assembly.
Longer-lived radionuclides persist in the spent fuel even as the decay heat drops further. Cesium-137 decays to barium-137, emitting a beta particle and a high-energy gamma ray. The cesium-137 half-life of 30.2 years is sufficiently long to ensure that this radionuclide will persist during storage. It and other materials present in the fuel will form small particles, called aerosols, in a zirconium cladding fire.
Shorter-lived radionuclides decay away rapidly after removal of the spent fuel from the reactor. One of these is iodine-131, which is of particular concern in reactor core accidents because it can be taken up in large quantities by the human thyroid. This radionuclide has a half-life of about 8 days and typically persists in significant quantities in spent fuel only on the order of a few months.