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Investigative Series Finds New England Nukes Packed with Spent Fuel

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On the heels of Japan's nuclear bad news comes this, closer to home.

Vermont Yankee and several other New England nuclear power plants are packed with up to five times more spent fuel than the storage pools were originally designed to hold. This discovery was made by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Connecticut Hearst Media Group.

Allowing the industry to store additional fuel in the pools within the reactor containment building has saved nuclear power plant owners millions of dollars, the report found.

The investigative series — The Canary in the Nuclear Plant — launched Sunday in several Hearst papers in Connecticut as well as four Hearst television stations: WPTZ NewsChannel 5, WCVB in Boston, WMUR in New Hampshire and WMTW in Portland, Maine.

(Full disclosure: I am working on this series as a contributing reporter for NECIR. My byline will appear on future installments.)

The first report, authored by Hearst investigative reporter Bill Cummings, focused on the amounts of spent fuel that nuclear power plants have been allowed to store in their spent-fuel pools, rather than putting the fuel in more expensive dry casks. And time may be running out, Cummings found, for keeping the fuel inside the plants.

"The NRC estimates that by 2015 many of the nation’s spent-fuel pools, particularly in older plants like many in this region, will run out of room. Then, operators will face an unpleasant choice: Move waste into dry casks to free up space in the pools, or shut down their plants," writes Cummings.

At Vermont Yankee, the storage pool contains five times as many spent fuel rods as the pool was designed for. That pool is several stories high in the plant. Check out these infographics that show how dry casks work and where the spent-fuel pools are located.

VY's storage pool was originally licensed to hold 600 spent fuel assemblies and now contains 2935 of them. That's 932 metric tons of radioactive waste, Cummings writes. The nation's 104 reactors collectively hold 63,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods.

VY has already been granted approval to move some of that fuel into dry casks, a process that began in 2008.

NRC officials say the decision to allow reactor owners to pack more fuel into the storage pools has not increased the safety risk to the public.

“The NRC, after careful study of the safety and security issues, concluded that fuel is safely stored in wet pools or dry storage casks. There is no justification, from a safety or security viewpoint, for removing fuel from pools and loading it into casks in order to return to low-density racking,” NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci told Cummings.

In addition to the report on spent fuel, Cummings reports that a meltdown at one of the New England reactors could be catastrophic, given how close some of the plants are to the region's population centers.

"A nuclear disaster in New England would truly be the sum of all fears. Studies project that thousands would be killed and huge areas rendered uninhabitable, potentially displacing one-sixth of the nation’s population," writes Cummings. "As such, it is the very definition of a terrorist objective."

The series will continue in the coming weeks.

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