Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2014
KEWAUNEE, Wisconsin—The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted Dominion Energy in October a request to lift disaster preparedness requirements for its shuttered nuclear Kewaunee reactor on Lake Michigan.
“Specifically, Kewaunee will no longer be required to maintain offsite radiological emergency preparedness plans or the 10-mile emergency planning zone,” the NRC announced.
The single reactor Kewaunee station was shut down May 7, 2013 and is undergoing decommissioning. Dominion has said the process will take 40 years.
With hundreds of tons of ferociously radioactive waste uranium fuel—known as “spent fuel”—now in the company’s on-site cooling pool, Kewaunee’s accident preparedness exemptions put lake water and hundreds of thousands of downwind residents at risk. A “loss-of-coolant” accident can cause the fuel to catch fire—like the waste fuel fire that may have occurred at Fukushima in March 2011—resulting in catastrophic radiation releases.
Rose-Colored Safety Assumptions
The NRC conducted a series of “Nuclear Waste Confidence” hearings around the country, along with some “transfer of waste nuclear fuel” proceedings. In all of them, NRC declared that in the event of a catastrophic radioactivity release, large-scale evacuations (out to a certain distance) would go well.
Kevin Kamps, of Beyond Nuclear, the Takoma Park, Maryland think tank, asks: “How is it possible that such evacuations would go well, if emergency preparedness requirements have been eliminated?”
The NRC’s optimistic assumption is at the heart of the agency’s conclusion that there is extremely little danger from waste pool storage. The NRC claims that if there’s a large radiation release due to a fire, no one will get hurt, because everyone will have evacuated out of harm’s way.
NRC staff has concluded that the company “will maintain an acceptable level of emergency preparedness at [Kewaunee]…and that there is reasonable assurance that adequate offsite protective measures can and will be taken by State and local government agencies, if needed, in the event of a radiological emergency.”
The NRC notice claims that, “In the unlikely event of a … complete loss of heat removal …there will be at least 10 hours available before an offsite release might occur and, therefore, at least 10 hours to … restore … heat removal to the spent fuel. … a minimum of 10 hours is considered sufficient time for offsite authorities to …protect the health and safety of the public.”
So far, every US reactor operator that has asked for the exemptions during decommissioning has had their request granted, rubber stamp fashion by the NRC.
Meanwhile, the owners of the Vermont Yankee reactor near Vernon, Vermont have asked for the similar exemptions from accident preparedness rules, but NRC has been far more demanding of Entergy Corp. than of Dominion in Wisconsin.
Vermont Yankee will be shut down at the end of the year, and Entergy has asked that its 10-mile evacuation zone be reduced to the station’s 148 acre footprint.
And while the potential risks of a disastrous waste fuel pool fire are similar at both sites, the NRC has demanded that Entergy rewrite its exemption request, noting three times that the company “inaccurately states” the effects of a waste fuel fire. Left unsaid in the Kewaunee case, the NRC has said about Vermont, “In the unlikely event that there is a catastrophic loss of spent fuel pool water inventory, there is a potential for an offsite release of radioactive material …” —JL