Exelon Targeting 2023 for Spent Nuclear Fuel Removal at Oyster Creek

Will Begin Full Dismantling of Nuclear Power Plant in 2075
Jul 04, 2018

With no federal repository on the horizon, spent nuclear fuel will remain onsite at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station’s dry cask storage facility once the plant permanently comes offline Sept. 17. Draining the spent fuel pool is expected to begin in about 2023 with the remainder of the work, including the demolishing of the reactor building and off-gas stack, starting in 2075, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The target dates were announced by the NRC during a public webinar held earlier this week to discuss decommissioning plans for Oyster Creek.

“They’ve already removed 34 dry cask assemblies to the site pad,” said Briana DeBoer, a decommissioning inspector for the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation and Reactor Health Physics Branch in Region 1 of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Division of Nuclear Materials Safety. Dry cask storage has been onsite at the Route 9 plant for more than 15 years.

Whether the company will need to expand its current dry cask pad to accommodate the remaining spent fuel from the boiling water reactor is unknown because the company hasn’t selected a vendor for the work, DeBoer said. If expansion is part of the plan, it will take approximately one year for the construction, she said.

“We would evaluate and be onsite when the concrete is poured,” DeBoer said, adding safety and security programs would continue until the spent fuel is removed from the site.

Still, Bruce Watson, chief of the reactor decommissioning branch of the NRC Office of Nuclear Materials and Safeguards, said the federal agency would prefer to have a federal repository for the spent nuclear fuel.

The first nuclear plant to use dry cask storage was the Surry Power Station in Virginia, dating back more than three decades. The use of dry cask canisters was thought to be a temporary solution to house spent fuel, but the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada dead-ended and the NRC is still looking at two potential interim sites, one in Texas and the other in New Mexico.

In the meantime, the only option for U.S. nuclear power plants is to store spent fuel from the reactor vessel onsite, federal officials said.

“A safety significance in dry storage is very low,” Watson said when asked what the likelihood was of an incident involving dry storage.

Dry cask storage permits spent fuel that has cooled in the spent fuel pool for at least one year to be surrounded by inert gas, generally helium, inside a container called a cask.

Whenever spent fuel is moved, all of the steps are carefully orchestrated to ensure safety, Neil Sheehan, public information officer for NRC Region 1, said. The process begins with placing the stainless steel canister holding the bundles of fuel rods into the spent fuel pool. The fuel assemblies are lifted by a crane from the metal racks located at the bottom of the pool before being inserted into the canister. A lid is then placed on it.

“After the canister is lifted out of the pool, the water is drained and the lid is welded into place,” Sheehan said, noting an inert gas is injected into the canister to alleviate heat transfer and prevent corrosion. “The fuel is then placed into a transfer cask and moved using a special transporter to the dry cask storage pad, where it is inserted into a concrete vault.”

At the top and bottom of the vault, vents allow for convective airflow that removes heat from the canister, he said. The vents are inspected on a daily basis to ensure there is no blockage, Sheehan said. Each steel cylinder is encompassed by additional steel, concrete or other material to provide radiation shielding to workers and the general public. Some of the cask designs can be used for storage and transportation.

Low-level radiation nuclear waste is still being accepted by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control at the Chem-Nuclear Site in Barnwell County. The site sits on 235 acres deeded to the state by Chem-Nuclear Systems, operated by Energy Solutions, and accepting low-level radioactive waste since 1971. New Jersey is in discussion with the officials there to transport low-level radioactive waste from Oyster Creek, according to the NRC.

Exelon announced its intention to place the nuke in safe storage for nearly six decades after it permanently takes Oyster Creek offline this year, more than 14 months earlier than initially anticipated when it agreed to cease operations in 2019 instead of building cooling towers on the site. In safe storage a facility is left intact or it may be partially dismantled, but the fuel is removed from the reactor vessel, radioactive liquids are drained from the systems and components then processed. The radioactive decay during safe storage lowers the level of contamination and radioactivity that must be disposed of during decontamination and dismantlement.

The company has said the primary objectives for decommissioning the plant are to take it out of service, reduce residual radioactivity to levels permitting unrestricted release, restore the site, perform the work safely, and complete the work in a cost-effective manner.

The cost of decommissioning Oyster Creek, the oldest commercial nuclear power plant in the nation, is $1.4 billion. Exelon has already stashed away approximately $913 million, as of the end of 2017, in a trust to pay for the cost of decommissioning.

There are currently six U.S. nuclear power plants in active decommissioning and another 14 units in safe storage. Exelon began planning for decommissioning Oyster Creek in 2014, according to the NRC.

The NRC’s 90-minute webinar was monopolized by individuals and groups, most without ties to New Jersey, who used the platform for their own agenda, leaving local residents reluctant to ask questions. The public will have another opportunity to do just that on Tuesday, July 17, during the NRC’s public meeting to discuss and accept public comments on the Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report for Oyster Creek. The hearing is slated for 6 to 9 p.m. at Community Hall, 101 N. Main St., Forked River.

Closer to home, the New Jersey Sierra Club called for Exelon to decommission Oyster Creek more quickly than the 60 years permitted by the NRC. Currently, the majority of the work isn’t slated to begin until 2075.

“The faster you can decommission and clean it up, the safer we will be and the sooner we can use the site for a different purpose,” Jeff Tittle, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said in a statement following the webinar. “We want to make sure the rods can be put into dry cask storage as quickly as possible because the safer we will be.”

— Gina G. Scala


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