Spent Fuel and the Dangers at Pilgrim — Article by CCBW intern Marcel Howard

Lesley University intern, Marcel Howard, writes about the Pilgrim nuclear waste storage zoning case. Marcel is a 3rd year student at Lesley, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies and will be focusing on issues related to Pilgrim’s nuclear waste storage project for the semester.

Tons of nuclear waste, generated by over 40 years of making nuclear power, is now being stored at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in a spent fuel pool. Because of the lack of room in the wet pool, Entergy Nuclear Generating Company (the owner of Pilgrim) is building a long-term nuclear waste storage facility on the shore of Cape Cod Bay using dry casks.

Nuclear wastes from nuclear power plants around the U.S. were supposed to be sent to a deep geological repository off-site. However, the proposed storage site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, was cancelled in 2010, and there is currently no other alternative. With that said, Entergy’s nuclear waste is stranded at Pilgrim and it has the potential to be there for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The uranium pellets that Pilgrim uses to generate nuclear power are contained in “fuel rods.” About 70 of these fuel rods are bundled together to form fuel assemblies. Pilgrim’s reactor core holds 580 assemblies. After a period of time, the fuel assemblies cannot generate enough energy and have to be replaced.

Entergy’s used (or “spent”) fuel assemblies are irradiated waste fuel – a high-level radioactive waste that is at least a million times more radioactive than the fresh nuclear fuel that goes into the reactor. At Pilgrim, about one-third of the used fuel assemblies in the reactor core are unloaded every eighteen months to two years and moved to wet pool storage. The wet pool is located inside the reactor building and is subject to an enormous amount of potential safety incidents. Equipment failures and personnel errors during reactor refueling activities have resulted in a few hundred safety accidents in the U.S., including at Pilgrim.

Pilgrim’s spent fuel pool was originally designed to hold 880 fuel assemblies, but currently holds over 3,200 – about four times more than it was originally designed to hold. The assemblies must be covered with water to prevent a fire that would release huge amounts of radioactivity – enough to contaminate an area more than 100 miles downwind, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

With Entergy running out of room for Pilgrim’s spent fuel pool, it needs to build a “dry cask” nuclear waste dump or it cannot continue to operate. According to Entergy Corporation’s Patricia Kakridas, “[Dry cask storage] has been safely implemented at dozens of other plants and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We are confident that the process of dry storage of used fuel will ultimately proceed at Pilgrim.”[1]

Kakridas’s statement may be seen as Entergy being over confident with their dry cask plans. Not only is Entergy’s proposed dry cask storage project located in the coastal zone (as close as 175 feet from the shoreline), where rising sea levels and other climate change impacts are a concern; but Pilgrim will need about 100 casks to supply enough space for the spent fuel. Each cask having to be 8 feet tall, 11 feet wide, and 360,000 pounds when loaded – to store all the spent nuclear fuel it will have generated over it’s lifetime.[2]

With this massive project being run by a company that has gone through multiple failures at Pilgrim in the past few months because of the weather, it is only inevitable that this same company could encounter multiple equipment and personnel failures when building this dry cask storage facility; which ultimately would lead to catastrophic consequences for Plymouth and the Greater Boston area.

In conclusion, it is noted that Pilgrim contains more than 600 metric tons of irradiated nuclear fuel then that of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.[3] With that said, the production of dry cask storage units on the site of Pilgrim increase the enhanced dangers of spent fuel being released into the local community, and causing even more devastation that was seen at Fukushima.

[1] http://www.capecodbaywatch.org/2014/09/pilgrim-station-dry-cask-appeal-moves-forward/

[2] http://www.capecodbaywatch.org/radioactive-waste/

[3] http://www.beyondnuclear.org/freeze-our-fukushimas/2013/5/23/states-tell-nrc-to-review-nuclear-waste-storage-at-reactors.html