Recently, I saw that someone used the words "hot mess" to describe the storage of used nuclear fuel at Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Hot, yes, when initially removed from the reactor. The word mess can mean more than one thing. In the case of the nuclear fuel, it is not all over the place, "in a mess."
There is a huge misunderstanding about nuclear fuel. Fuel handling is under very strict regulations and is very precise. Nuclear fuel is delivered in fuel assemblies ready to be placed in the reactor, and at the end of four to four-and-a-half years it's replaced with new fuel assemblies.
The fuel is in the form of a pellet about the size of one of the smallest Tootsie Roll candies. Each pellet is stacked vertically in the fuel assembly rods and looks exactly the same when removed from the reactor as they did when being placed in the reactor. Inside the reactor, the fuel assemblies are surrounded by 96,000 gallons of purified, borated water. The reactor is 43 feet tall and weighs 433 tons, with 8-inch-thick walls of low-carbon steel. The reactor itself is surrounded by 138-foot-deep concrete walls.
As a tour guide for 23 years at Diablo Canyon, I was given a tour inside during the re-fueling of one of the units. The reactor head was removed, and we could actually see the fuel assemblies in the reactor. Of course, we had training before getting access to this location, plus we all had to have a full body count of the radiation already present in our bodies.
Everyone has certain amounts of radiation in their bodies depending on where they live, what they do, and what they eat. When we exited the RCA (radiological controls area), we were checked again to see if there was any increase of radiation in our bodies. A couple of weeks later, we all received a letter stating there was no increase. There are several safety protection measures to take for radiation exposure—time/distance/shielding. Lead, concrete, and water are all effective shields from radiation exposure.
Getting back to the word "hot." Yes, the fuel is hot (but not forever), and removing fuel assemblies from the reactor is done through a canal filled with water that leads to the fuel handling building, which contains the huge pools of purified/borated water 40 feet deep. The water is purified to remove most of the minerals, as the water itself does not become radioactive—only the particles within. The boron is added to absorb neutrons in the water. The water in the pools is flowing through a closed system to remove the heat from the fuel.
Those most unfamiliar with nuclear power don't know that all the radioactive fission fragments created by splitting the uranium are different sizes and weights, and have varying half-lives, from seconds to many years. At the end of 10 years, 90 percent of the radiation has decayed; it's gone. Essentially, all the radioactive fission products will be gone in 600 years.
What remains is essentially no more radioactive than natural uranium or thorium. What remains is much slower decaying, and consequently not particularly harmful.
The used fuel at Diablo Canyon was transferred to dry storage above the plant where it had been stored in the spent fuel pools for 20 years. Nuclear used fuel stored by commercial power plants or the military has harmed no one. The military has safely shipped used nuclear fuel for years.
The dry storage of used fuel is considered safely stored in dry storage for 100 years. It's up to the federal government to decide what and how to store the used fuel long term. New types of reactors have been developed in which much of the nuclear fuel is used up during the process of making power.
Too much erroneous information has been spoken and published about the fuel and storing the fuel as a means of creating fear. Δ
Ellie Ripley is a retired Diablo Canyon Power Plant tour guide and does public outreach for the Californians for Green Nuclear Power. She writes to New Times from Arroyo Grande. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a letter to the editor in response and email it to email@example.com.