Q&A-General Nuclear Regulatory Commission Page 1

What is spent nuclear fuel?

“Spent nuclear fuel” refers to fuel elements that have been used at commercial nuclear reactors, but that are no longer capable of economically sustaining a nuclear reaction. Periodically, about one-third of the nuclear fuel in an operating reactor needs to be unloaded and replaced with fresh fuel.

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Why does spent fuel need to be cooled?

Spent fuel continues to generate heat because of radioactive decay of the elements inside the fuel. After the fission reaction is stopped and the reactor is shut down, the products left over from the fuel’s time in the reactor are still radioactive and emit heat as they decay into more stable elements. Although the heat production drops rapidly at first, heat is still generated many years after shutdown. Therefore, the NRC sets requirements on the handling and storage of this fuel to ensure protection of the public and the environment.

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Questions and Answers – Spent Fuel Inventories

Why doesn’t the NRC have up-to-date figures on how much spent fuel is stored at U.S. nuclear plants?

The NRC and Department of Energy (NNSA) operate the Nuclear Material Management and Safeguards System (NMMSS), a database that tracks Special Nuclear Material (enriched uranium and plutonium). This database does not distinguish between fresh and irradiated material, and the information is withheld from the public for security reasons. That’s why figures on spent fuel inventory come from the industry.

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How much fuel is currently in dry cask storage?

As of November 2010, there were 63 “independent spent fuel storage installations” (or ISFSIs) licensed to operate at 57 sites in 33 states. These locations are shown on a map on the NRC website at: http://www.nrc.gov/waste/spent-fuel-storage/locations.pdf. Over 1400 casks are stored in these independent facilities.

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How much fuel is stored at decommissioned reactors? Is it in pools or casks?

There are currently 10 decommissioned nuclear power reactors at 9 sites with no other nuclear operations. According to a 2008 Department of Energy report to Congress, approximately 2800 metric tons of spent fuel is stored at these nine sites. As of the writing of that report, seven of the sites had independent spent fuel storage installations, or ISFSIs. Two additional sites had approximately 1000 metric tons of spent fuel remaining in pool storage.

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Questions and Answers – Spent Fuel Pool Safety

What do you look at when you license a fuel storage facility? How do I know it can withstand a natural disaster?

The NRC’s requirements for both wet and dry storage can be found in Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR), including the general design criteria in Appendix A to Part 50 and the spent-fuel storage requirements in Part 72. The staff uses these rules to determine that the fuel will remain safe under anticipated operating and accident conditions. There are requirements on topics such as radiation shielding, heat removal, and criticality. In addition, the staff reviews fuel storage designs for protection against:

  • natural phenomena, such as seismic events, tornados, and flooding
  • dynamic effects, such as flying debris or drops from fuel handling equipment and drops of fuel storage and handling equipment
  • hazards to the storage site from nearby activities

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How do you know the fuel pools are safe? Does the NRC inspect these facilities, or just the reactor itself?

NRC inspectors are responsible for verifying that spent fuel pools and related operations are consistent with a plant’s license. For example, our staff inspects spent fuel pool operations during each refueling outage. We also performed specialized inspections to verify that new spent fuel cooling capabilities and operating practices were being implemented properly.

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What would happen to a spent fuel pool during an earthquake? How can I be sure the pool wouldn’t be damaged?

All spent fuel pools are designed to seismic standards consistent with other important safety-related structures on the site. The pool and its supporting systems are located within structures that protect against natural phenomena and flying debris. The pools’ thick walls and floors provide structural integrity and further protection of the fuel from natural phenomena and debris. In addition, the deep water above the stored fuel (typically more than 20 feet above the top of the spent fuel rods) would absorb the energy of debris that could fall into the pool. Finally, the racks that support the fuel are designed to keep the fuel in its designed configuration after a seismic event.

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Can spent fuel pools leak?

Spent fuel pools lined with stainless steel are designed to protect against a substantial loss of the water that cools the fuel. Pipes typically enter the pool above the level of the stored fuel, so that the fuel would stay covered even if there were a problem with one of the pipes. The only exceptions are small leakage-detection lines and, at two pressurized water reactor (PWR) sites, robust fuel transfer tubes that enter the spent fuel pool directly. The liner normally prevents water from being lost through the leak detection lines, and isolation valves or plugs are available if the liner experiences a large leak or tear.

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How would you know about a leak in such a large pool of water?

The spent fuel pools associated with all but one operating reactor have liner leakage collection to allow detection of very small leaks. In addition, the spent fuel pool and fuel storage area have diverse instruments to alert operators to possible large losses of water, which could be indicated by low water level, high water temperature, or high radiation levels.

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