Is loss of electricity a risk for spent nuclear fuel?

The usual plan for spent nuclear fuel in the United States is to transfer it to a cooling pool and then after some time to transfer it to dry cask storage.  Eventually, the plan is to move it to a permanent storage site, although no such site is available. The proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear repository is currently off the table, and no other site is seriously being discussed.

My concern is that ability to maintain electrical supply to spent fuel pools is a risk that no one has been paying much attention to, when looking at security of spent fuel. We have just now been witnessing the problems that are occurring in Japan, when electricity was cut off from reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.  The spent-fuel cooling pond has been a particular problem, because of the large amount of spent fuel in the pool, the need to keep pumping water into the pools, and the need to circulate the water in the pools. In the United States, we now have about 55,000 tons of spent fuel in spent fuel pools. This is the equivalent of 25 or 30 years of spent fuel, assuming current fuel use is 2,200 tons a year.

When a person reads about what perils the spent fuel pools are safe from, such as from this document from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it talks about the pools being inside very thick steel-reinforced concrete walls with stainless steel liners located inside protected areas, and that they would be safe from impact by an aircraft or other object. The article doesn’t talk about electricity interruption as being an issue. The impression one gets from the way other perils are described, though, is that any electrical interruption is expected to be brief (hours or days), and easily handled through backup supply,  or perhaps through electricity generated by the plant itself.

It seems to me that at some point, this assumption of electricity continuing to be available is likely to be false.

We have lived with electricity being available nearly everywhere for a long time, and assume that this will continue to be the case. But if we stop to think about the situation, at some point, the benefits of fossil fuels will largely cease to be with us. We may continue to have hydroelectric electricity in some places, as long as the parts continue to function in our current equipment, but at some point even this will start to fail.

We don’t know how far away the end of universal electricity is, but we do know that anything that cannot go on forever, won’t.  We don’t know precisely what will cause the end of electricity availability in a particular area. It could be failure of the financial system, and inability to pay employees. Or it could be political uprising. Or it could be lack of oil to run diesel trains to transfer coal to electrical generating plants. Or it could be unavailability of necessary parts, because of some problem elsewhere in the world. We are now hearing about disruption of automobile production because of the unavailability of certain Japanese parts. It is not too hard to imagine something similar happening to parts needed to maintain the electrical system.

If we know that electricity will cease to be available in adequate supply in, say, 2100, then it seems to me that we need to phase out all spent fuel cooling pools prior to that date. Alternatively, if spent fuel pools could be made to be completely independent of electricity through some sort of passive system, this might also be a solution. But I question whether a passive system could be made sufficiently passive that 10 years later, it would still have enough water in it, and this water would still be adequately circulating, so that it could adequately perform its functions.

We know that at some point, the license of any particular nuclear plant will cease to be renewed, so it will have to depend on electricity generated elsewhere (or through diesel generators) to keep the water in its spent rod fuel pools circulating and the water pumps operating.  As long as our current system  of universal electricity is operating, this shouldn’t be a problem. But if electricity isn’t available in the area, and long-term use of diesel generators can’t be made to work as a back-up,  it seems like we could again be experiencing problems with badly overheating spent fuel, and radiation spreading over large areas. If there is a possibility of this happening, it seems to me that somehow the plants need to be closed, and the spent fuel pools eliminated before we lose our ability to use electricity to operate the spent-fuel pools.

The problem I see is that we don’t know when a loss of electricity will take place. We have just seen an example of a tsunami taking out electricity (and even backup electricity) at a facility in Japan, so it is possible for a loss of electricity to happen even now.  If there is even a possibility of loss of electricity 10 or 20 years from now, it would seem like it would make sense to start getting rid of fuel in spent fuel pools, and maybe even closing nuclear reactors down, so as to not keep generating more nuclear waste that we really have no plans for.

The problem with closing nuclear plants down is that, by itself, could lead to serious electricity shortages in areas where nuclear energy is a significant share of the total. This would include the US East Coast (30% to 35% of total electricity), France (75% to 80% of electricity), and Japan (25% to 30% of electricity).

How about options like wind and solar? I don’t see these as providing the kind of electricity needed to keep water circulating in spent fuel cooling pools for years at a time. Any such system would need backup batteries, or some similar system for maintaining electrical supply, around the clock. The system would last only as long as the part that wears out first, and can’t be replaced–probably the battery, but in the case of wind generated electricity, it might be something like replacement of the gear box. Furthermore, a system such as this would need to be planned out well in advance.

I don’t think anyone is even thinking about the issue of loss of availability of electrical generation and its impact on our ability to maintain spent nuclear fuel pools. Everyone assumes that we will continue to have our current system forever. We know that this cannot be true, but I doubt that anyone is willing to face this issue and plan for it.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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25 Responses to Is loss of electricity a risk for spent nuclear fuel?

  1. David Veale says:

    Hi Gail, it sounds to me as if there is a substantial risk for grid failure with 12-24 months as a result of converging solar cycles. Google NASA and solar storm together for details. Lloyds of London also commissioned a recent study suggesting that there is a bottleneck in the construction of large utility scale transformers. If they’re right, we could be looking at years before grids were fully restored. My one caveat on the solar storms is that most of the reports I see are a few years old — not sure if the latest solar tracking is still suggesting the liklyhood of storms in the 2012-2013 timeframe.

    • Solar cycles are outside my area of expertise. Someone sent me these links this morning.

      http://www.oosa.unvienna.org/pdf/pres/stsc2011/tech-14.pdf
      http://www.oosa.unvienna.org

      But as things get more complex, there are more things that can go wrong. A few hundred years ago, Japan’s earthquake and tsunami would only have been of interest to people living in the area.

      • Gary Peters says:

        With its usual combination of hubris and ignorance the American media announced that this was the largest earthquake in Japan’s history. Not only do we not know that, given what we do know about Japan’s geological history it has most likely endured many giant quakes. As you suggested, in earlier times these were known only more locally. It was certainly the largest quake in Japan, and one of the largest in the world, since 1900. It is unfortunate that the media perpetuates our ignorance of the past.

        Along with the increasing complexity that you mention, our increasing numbers also play a role. Even as the U.S. trends toward becoming a “pot hole” culture, our numbers continue to increase, which will make any natural disaster seem worse. In California millions of people in the Bay Area and in Southern California choose to live atop, or close to, the San Andreas Fault, which will, at some unpredictable time, produce another major quake of at least magnitude 7.

        The Southern California case is particularly interesting to consider because major supplies of water, gas, and electricity cross the San Andreas and face disruption. As we are witnessing in Japan, even rich countries can be badly disrupted by natural disasters because of a combination of complexity and numbers.

        As Mark Twain once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

        • Thanks! When I visited Yellowstone national park, they mentioned that it is a super volcano, that is subject to earthquakes. The area around it isn’t as populated, but it still could be a big problem if it erupted again.

  2. Dave says:

    Loss of electricity will be an issue in many other industries and governmental labs. The biological labs, toxic chemical storage, chemical production plants, and large dam control are a few that come to mind. I would be curious to see all those power dependant ticking time bombs out there. This Japanese reactor event is another of the increasingly dangerous by-products of a highly complexed globalized world being manifested. In any case when and if the lights go out long enough and widespread enough I see the likely outcome to be catabolic collapse. Events in Japan are giving us a taste of how quickly this could occur if multiple events converged. I feel the results of these 3 disasters in Japan are yet to be completely understood systematically. Stay tuned folks!

    • The Texas electrical power outage following cold weather was smaller, but gave us another taste of the kinds of things that can happen. (See my post on this.) There are all kinds of ways we can get to a bad result. Just cutting back on nuclear power generation will leave us more vulnerable to electricity shortfalls, because nuclear is 30% to 35% of electricity generation on the US east coast, and in some other areas.

  3. The MarianaTrench solution intrigues me. I have read the coldest ocean water sinks. Would the sea water contamination stay local in the trench?
    Great article and comments, thank you!!

  4. Further re Mariana Trench disposal – subduction would fold the wastes into the earth’s deeeper layers, and I would think long enough there would not be a legacy of radioactive volcanoes, so I see the contamination of sea water as the main question. Does anyone in the government discuss the posssibility? Thanks!

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