Study Suggests Seismic Risk at NW Nuke Plant; Plant Officials Dubious

A recent study of spent fuel storage at the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington, suggests that the growing stockpile of spent nuclear fuel could pose a major public safety risk in the event of an earthquake.

“Expensive & Dangerous”

The study of the Columbia Generating Station, the only commercial nuclear plant in the Northwest, was commissioned by noted anti-nuclear groups Physicians for Social Responsibility and Heart of America Northwest. The findings suggest that the plant itself is an expensive, dangerous way to generate electricity.

The study finds that the plant is storing more fuel on site than it was originally built to, due to the lack of a national storage facility. The plant, opened in 1984, houses a 1,200 megawatt boiling water reactor that has produced over 368,000 spent fuel rods. With no national storage vault, the Richland station has instead transferred roughly 60 percent of that waste into dry-cask storage; the other 40 percent is in the reactor’s 350,000 gallon spent fuel tank. Additionally, the study notes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has allowed plants to use their fuel longer, which causes higher levels of radioactivity.

The author of the study, Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, applauds the facility’s dry storage methods. However, he states that, because of the larger-than-planned quantity of more radioactive and physically hotter fuel stored at the facility, an earthquake could cause a significant hazard.

Specifically, Alvarez suggests that the spent fuel tank—located on top of the reactor building, six stories above ground—could be damaged should a major seismic event occur. A loss of coolant water could cause the fuel to catch fire and release massive amounts of radiation. The study, and its backers, suggest that the current spent fuel pool design is a problem without a solution.

The US Geological Survey’s recent seismic data shows that a major earthquake in the plant’s area could cause more than double the ground motion that the facility was designed to withstand.

Columbia Generating Station

Columbia Generating Station

“Data Errors & Fear Mongering”

Meanwhile, officials at Energy Northwest, the utility consortium operating the plant, disagreed with the report’s findings. They suggest that the study contains numerous data errors and is bloated with fear mongering language. Additionally, they state that earthquake data used in the study does not apply to the Columbia Generating Station’s location.

Regarding the reported fuel overage: “We’re licensed to hold that amount of fuel,” said Energy Northwest spokesface Mike Paoli. The consortium states that the pond is currently only holding 51 percent of its licensed capacity, and that radioactivity is well under the allowed levels.

As for earthquake safety: “We have backup systems in place,” Paoli stated. “The worst case scenario they’re describing is so unlikely it’s unreasonable. We have systems to address situations that should occur […] and we’ll make changes in the plant to make sure we can handle a higher seismic threat than we currently have on paper.”

Photo credit: NRCgov / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND