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 financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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25 Responses to Is loss of electricity a risk for spent nuclear fuel?

  1. Pingback: Is loss of electricity a risk for spent nuclear fuel? | Energy and Metals

  2. 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!

  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. 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.

  5. 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.

      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.

  6. aeldric says:

    This has been a lesson for me. Ten years ago I was anti-nuclear power because I believed the Engineering task associated with making it safe to be near-impossible. As I gained an appreciation of just how difficult it would be to build out renewables at the scale required I was forced to conceed that we will need all possible solutions, including nuclear, if we wish to maintain our current standard of living.

    Now I am forced to concede that nuclear (as currently done) does not fail to a safe mode. Possibly Thorium will work, but I wouldn’t bet on the first versions of a Thorium plant – there will be lessons to learn.

    The real problem is in my requirement “to maintain our standard of living”. It isn’t sustainable and it aint gunna happen.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “The real problem is in my requirement “to maintain our standard of living”. It isn’t sustainable and it aint gunna happen.”

      Worth repeating.

      But a lot of it depends on how you define “standard of living.” We can enjoy a high standard of living (in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy) on a tiny fraction of the consumption we have today.

      But if you define “standard of living” as “moving two tons of metal and glass to the corner market to buy a loaf of bread,” then the problem is with the definition, not the standard of living.

    • Gary Peters says:


      The real problem is even worse. Economists want both a continuous increase in our standard of living AND more people to enjoy it. That these two trends cannot be sustained seems not to phase the average economist, who also remains unembarassed by his/her total failure to predict the financial collapse of 2007-8.

  7. wotfigo says:

    “Spent Fuel” is NOT “SPENT” It remains highly radioactive for thousands of years.

    The term “spent fuel” is a fine example of positive PR spin on describing the most dangerous & highly toxic industry as “clean & green” Nothing to worry about here; the old fuel rods are “spent”.

    The MOX fuel at Fukishima No. 3 reactor contains plutonium which has a half life of 24,000 years and therefore lethally radioactive for about a quarter of a million years.

    A great legacy we are leaving future generations.

  8. Kevin Mayes says:

    I have a mental picture of in say one or two hundred years time, water being pumped into/circulated around these facilities by donkey (or even human) treadmill like some kind of religious observance to appease the gods for our past folly……..

  9. Fay Helwig says:

    Safe nuclear does exist and China is leading the way with thorium. China has decided to use thorium instead of the far more unstable and dangerous uranium in its nuclear reactors. The US instead chose uranium in order to make nuclear weapons with plutonium

    • Thanks! I hadn’t heard that China was going to try it. Since the technology is different, there is always a concern that it will take a few tries before all of the problems get worked out.

  10. Iaato says:

    Thanks for this, Gail. I have been watching the news this week while my heart bleeds for Japan. My big concern is our own status here in the US.

    We need to look longer term than next week, at the locations of US nuclear plants, the amount of “spent” nuclear fuels in too-concentrated conditions in pools at the site, the Mark I designs requiring active electrical cooling, 4-8 hour battery lives, the downwind ramifications, and you’ve got the future. Instead of On The Beach or “terrorism”, we have met the enemy and it is us. A widely distributed network of overly complex nuclear “dirty bombs” waiting to go off as complexity wanes and the electricity blinks on and off, with one node after another being extinguished, starting with the island nation.

    Ocean irradiation is a concern, too. But we will know little about that, since even though there is no “there” there anymore, people will treat the ocean as a safe(r) dump in the last resort. I guess I need to check my salmon from now on, since the AK Gyre is in downwind patterns.

  11. Another great point Gail.

    In the middle of the last century, the nuclear age was launched with a bang upon the world. Since then, the use of nuclear technology, for both electricity generation and military armament has been a sustained contentious issue on the enviro/social agenda, yet the spread of nuclear wastes and weapons continues today with no effective mechanism to curb it anytime soon.

    There currently exists on the planet some 25 000 to 30 000 nuclear warheads in various states of deployment readiness ranging from minutes to weeks and new nations are constantly working towards nuclear strike capability. Around the world we are storing vast quantities of highly radioactive substances, waste and otherwise, some of it under circumstances of dubious security. The risk of harm from these nuclear sources will endure, effectively forever, and is currently being contained only by the dubious happenstance of political stability, which history tells us is never more than a short term condition. Bequeathing such a legacy of risk upon our children is, for many of us, difficult to justify and yet it has been done; brought about through the deliberate decisions of some of the most influential and respected leaders of modern times.

    The obvious dark-side to this nuclear story should have caused us to reflect a while before launching other irretrievable juggernauts like genetic engineering and nanotechnology to threaten the futures of our grandchildren, but it didn’t.

    Scientific investigation of these technologies is often initiated by a simple desire to know, while the subsequent large scale deployment seems largely driven by commerce. I believe the investigation is noble enough and probably necessary for human development (I’m no Luddite) but I question the nobility, the need and ultimately the wisdom of deployment in the absence of full knowledge. We have the intellect to develop the widgets of self-harm but as yet we lack the protective restraint of wisdom. Is it simple hubris?
    Until a consequential majority of the public has an enquiring mindset similar to yours and there is a social system that embraces that as a strong element of governance, I fear we’ll continue such imprudent deployments. Would that these questions could remain purely academic but, for the sake of future generations, they can’t. My Pachacuti Project is attempting to address the public awareness, education part.
    I believe you would enjoy, perhaps even gain insights, from my doco/novel, ‘Pachacuti’. It’s available from my website.
    I also have a forum that discusses topics you might find beneficial.
    Please keep up the good work.

  12. robert wilson says:

    As far back as the mid 50’s – as noted in Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson – Edward Teller was interested in the possibility of designing inherently safe (fool proof) reactors. He was also considering the possibility of permanent underground siting. I assume that the economics was never as favorable for underground siting.

  13. dan allen says:

    Great work, Gail.

    I fear that this may come to pass: Electricity generation becomes sporadic. Government/military officials, fearing vaporization of soon-to-be dry & overheating spent fuel, motor it out to some deep oceanic trench & drop it overboard.

    My question: I haven’t had time to go into the possible biogeochemistry results of this (not totally unlikely) ocean-ditching ‘experiment’, but could anyone with expertise postulate the possible/likely results over various time-scales (years/decades/centuries/millenia/etc.)

    My mind reels & my heart aches with what this civilization may look like as it unravels.

  14. schoff says:

    Great post. The pools have been an issue for a long time, and the nuke operators have been paying billions of dollars to the Federal Government to do it, unfortunately despite lots of scientific and engineering work at YUCA a deal with the senior senator and the current present has closed it down.

    I too doubt whether passive systems can be retrofitted into the current installations, but there is potentially a simple solution (assuming no anarchy) for many if not most of the US reactors – specifically the ones near fresh water such as TMI.

    I noted in the recent japanese pool discussion that they needed about 20,000 gallons of makeup water per day. Unfortunately on my organic farm i have to sometimes move water from a retaining pond to (large) rain catching barrels which have not caught sufficient rain lately. I have no problems moving 2500 gallons with a one inch hose and a five hp pump – and i’m assuming that the nuke firms have better budgets than I. I’ve had good experiences with 11 year old diesel, and 100,000 gallon aquadams have already been used by the industry:

    My 6.6kw solar array could probably do this as well, and even with it’s duty cycle, i’d guess a couple 100k gallon aquadams would get us through that. You’d need something a little more sophisticated where it freezes. If I am off by a quantum, I don’t think it matters, these are still low scale situations.

    In some sense this would be the final backup for the pools, but it would not be to expensive to have it in a shipping container on site somewhere.

    Lastly, as my friend who was involved in the Chernobyl cleanup and who does it all over the world told me, the difference between the US and Japan or the US and many other countries is that he can walk into any tool rental place in america and instantanteously assemble what Japan used up until they brought in the military trucks. The level of equipment we have around is very high, AND our culture’s ad hoc biases is probably beneficial in emergencies.

    • You make some good points. Perhaps one doesn’t need anything terribly fancy–perhaps not even a battery back up for solar /wind, if you have fresh water near by, and can pump water when the wind is blowing / sun shining.

      • schoff says:

        Thanks. Having said all of that, it doesn’t mean that the industry or NRC would take it seriously or implement it in our lifetimes! It WOULD be comforting to know that there was a container of equivalent gear onsite, instead of going to Hornung’s Ace Hardware Rental. I was onsite at TMI in 79 and I have stories about USAF MAC flights with purely commercial equipment…… I changed my major from Nuke to EE after that.

  15. Susan Albert says:

    The end of electricity is as inconceivable for most people as the end of cheap and easily available oil. I agree with you: the issue will never be faced until it becomes an actuality–which means that there will never be adequate planning.

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