April 6, 2011

Expert: Maine Yankee's spent fuel still poses risk

Urges upgraded storage facilities

BY RAYE TIBBITTS, Correspondent

WISCASSET — It’s been 15 years since Maine Yankee produced nuclear power on Bailey Point, but the spent nuclear fuel stored in 64 dry cask storage containers still has the potential to release “19 times more radioactivity than Chernobyl” in the event of a natural or manmade disaster, according a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Concerns about spent nuclear fuel storage at Maine Yankee have risen in the weeks following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Don Hudson, co-chairperson of Wiscasset’s community advisory panel and president emeritus of the Chewonki Foundation, which helps oversee the Maine Yankee site, said recently, “The toxicity or intensity of the fuel is not what it was in the pool 15 years ago. A lot of decay has happened during this time.”

Researcher Robert Alvarez, however, who is in the final stages of a study of stored nuclear fuel sites for the Department of Energy, says the spent nuclear fuel at Maine Yankee remains highly dangerous.
According the Institute for Policy Studies website, Alvarez has worked with the DOE, received awards for his work there and earlier was a nuclear expert as a U.S. Senate staffer.

He pegs the spent fuel still contains “126 million curies.” A curie, named for early radiology scientists Marie and Pierre Curie, is a measurement of a unit of radioactivity.

“Put it this way,” Alvarez says, “If you put five curies [of radioactivity] in a small crowded area, people would get a lethal dose in less than a half an hour.”

In the event of a natural disaster or terror attack, the spent nuclear fuel stored at Maine Yankee, and at other sites around the U.S., would be a considerable threat.

“These are some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, and it’s going to be awhile before the U.S. government figures out what to do with this stuff,” said Alvarez. “We’ve been so complacent about storage in the U.S. We’ve really put the disposal cart before the storage horse.”

In Europe, dry casks of spent nuclear fuel are either buried in hillsides in a process known as “berming” or surrounded by concrete structures able to withstand jet impact.

According to Alvarez, “This adds an additional layer of protection from the potential release of radiation should the dry cask storage system fail. If Maine Yankee’s casks are going to be sitting there out in the open, berm them, or surround them in concrete. They aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Fortunately, he said, Maine Yankee’s dry cask storage system is “better than having spent fuel up in pools where, if something like Fukushima happened, they could catch on fire.

“The consequences would be nothing, absolutely nothing compared to what they would be if the spent fuel was stored in a pool,” Alvarez says.

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