Because of the fears of large-scale release of radioactive gases from the spent-fuel pools at the Fukushima reactors in Japan, people have begun to focus on an issue UCS has advocated for many years: transferring older spent fuel from the pools into dry cask storage at the reactor sites. A description of dry casks and how they increase safety is available here.
One supporter of this policy has been NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko. In a May 13, 2008 speech at a nuclear industry trade group forum, he made the case that it’s much safer to store spent fuel rods in dry casks than in pools, and recommended that the NRC require plants to expeditiously transfer spent fuel from wet pools to dry casks rather than allow it to accumulate in the pools.
He noted that spent fuel was being stored at sites in 30 states, and that given the lack of a long-term disposal plan for spent fuel
… the focus should remain on shorter-term storage and any additional safety and security improvements that can be made there.
Referring to both accidents and terrorist attacks on a reactor, he went on to say:
The most clear-cut example of an area where additional safety margins can be gained involves additional efforts to move spent nuclear fuel from pools to dry cask storage.
In his speech he said that NRC staff was working on the “technical basis” for rules relevant to dry cask storage and that the staff expected to provide these rules to the NRC “by the summer of 2009.”
UCS put out a press release at the time applauding Dr. Jaczko’s call for the move to dry cask storage and reinforcing his message that it would represent a significant increase in safety.
Unfortunately, in his speech Dr. Jaczko noted that while he supported such a rule, “the majority of the Commission did not.” And since that time, the NRC seems to have lost the focus Dr. Jaczko called for. The rule that was supposed to have been submitted to the NRC in the summer of 2009 has not seen the light of day. There is still no requirement for nuclear plant owners to increase safety by moving spent fuel from overloaded pools to dry casks.
On May 13, 2009—a year to the day after making this speech—Dr. Jaczko became NRC Chairman. Now that the current crisis in Japan has vividly illustrated the threat posed by the buildup of spent fuel in pools, he should again push forward on this issue. And hopefully this time the other NRC Commissioners will agree and the NRC will act quickly to require plant owners to begin to move spent fuel to dry casks.