From: "Russell D. Hoffman" <>
Subject: Dry Cask Storage or Spent Fuel Pools -- which is better (or worse)?

January 20th, 2002

Hi Folks,

Here's some info on nuclear waste:


Russell Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA



Big Rock Point was a 67 Megawatt reactor in Michigan that ran for 35 years (longest of any U.S. reactor).  Per pound of uranium fuel used up in the reactor, it delivered only a tiny fraction of the energy that a full-scale reactor such as a modern 1,200 Megawatt behemoth could have delivered with the same amount of uranium.  Despite being eclipsed technologically decades ago, it was allowed to operate because the nation had been lulled into disinterest.  But even a lax regulatory atmosphere, government and other subsidies to get started, and a government promise that society would simply take the fuel away at the end of its life cycle, couldn't make the plant profitable.  So, despite a valid license from the NRC to keep running until they either blow something up or melt something down (or both), in 1997 Big Rock Point was closed “simply due to economics” (quote from the Consumers Energy web site; Consumers Energy owns the Big Rock Point site and probably hopes to build a new generation of reactors there some day).

In 1995 there were 48 tons of spent fuel piled up at the facility waiting for an accident or a repository, whichever comes first.  By the time Big Rock Point closed there was, of course, somewhat more, including whatever was in the reactor when it shut down that wasn't transferred somewhere else.  (My guess is none was moved when the decision to shut down was made, because its fuel assemblies were sized differently from other reactors' fuel assemblies.  So probably a lot of relatively new fuel was discarded when Big Rock Point shut down.).

Here's something on Big Rock Point's casks, from their web site:

“[Dry Cask Storage] involves placing the fuel in seven shielded, air-cooled, self-contained storage casks. Spent fuel is sealed in a cask's internal steel canister; there are no pumps, valves or other moving parts. The design provides stability for the stored fuel, shielding from radiation and natural airflow around the outside of the sealed basket through air vents at the bottom and top of the cask. The vents allow heat removal from the basket wall through natural airflow, but the air does not come in direct contact with the stored fuel. After loading, the casks will be placed in a secure, fenced and monitored storage location on the plant site. Big Rock Point's casks are being designed and manufactured by the Westinghouse Corp.” (Source: Consumers Energy web site.)

According to the Yucca Mtn documentation cited below, there are 524 fuel assemblies at Big Rock Point, each weighing from 456 to 591 lbs. 



Here's some facts about the Hi-Star 100 System from Holtec International (info was collected in Nevada at a Yucca Mtn hearing):

"...a dual-purpose cask that can be used for storage and transportation of irradiated nuclear fuel.  The Hi-Star 100 System consists of an outer cask into which a transportable storage canister is placed..."

Weight: Empty / Loaded (tons): 115 / 139
Capacity (Intact Assemblies) 24 PWR / 68 BWR

It's shaped like a big dumbbell, probably because it was created by big dumbbells.



A typical PWR (Pressurized Water Reactor) fuel assembly weighs between 1,100 and 1,700 lbs., and contains about 0.475 metric tons of "heavy metal".  A typical BWR (Boiling Water Reactor) fuel Assembly weighs between 556 and 725 lbs., and contains about 0.200 metric tons of "heavy metal". 

Heavy metals are those with atomic masses greater than 230, such as thorium, uranium, plutonium and neptunium.

(Source:Yucca Mtn Project documentation, pages 3-12, 3-13, and the glossary of DOE/RW-0539)



Someone has been asking, under the (possibly earnest) guise of naivety, whether, for example, 50 dry cask storage units at a nuke site is better than one or two spent fuel pools, as a storage system.

BOTH spent fuel storage systems are woefully inadequate -- money can buy a much safer system, but there is NO WAY to build a "cost-effective" system.  The nuke industry would be bankrupt tomorrow if society insisted on a half-way reasonable containment for spent nuclear fuel today.  But if we wait, it may result in the catastrophic loss of more than just a few corrupt companies, but of millions of lives.

Even ONE ISOLATED ACCIDENT involving ONE DRY CASK would be a catastrophe far worse than anything America has ever seen.  The DOE documentation describes what they call "worst case scenarios", but these scenarios actually only involve the release of TINY FRACTIONS of the total load of spent fuel in the cask -- on the order of 0.001% or even 0.000001%!  They have to assume such minute releases, because the "heavy metals" are extremely hazardous, and one fuel assembly -- in fact, one single rod in a fuel assembly (there are typically about 200 fuel rods in a fuel assembly) can kill millions of people if it is completely burned while passing through a crowded area.

That's why the DOE has to consider full burns of the fuel "not credible" -- so their consequences can be ignored.  "Not credible" means basically anything the DOE thinks has less than about a one in a million chance of occurring -- but added together, that's probably in the neighborhood of a million things they've ignored -- making an accident practically inevitable.  (Go ahead -- do the math.  Make my day.)

By 2040 there will be an estimated 292,000 commercial spent fuel assemblies which will need to be transported across the country, and probably half again that much spent military fuel in need of transport.  Someone will have gotten rich off of all those fuel rods, but society is poorer for their very existence, because we have no place to put them and they are dangerous as all hell.

ONE NUCLEAR FUEL PELLET, about the size of a joint of your pinky (there are over a hundred pellets in a typical fuel rod) can kill tens of thousands of people, and is enough nuclear waste to make a dandy "dirty bomb" with.

I'm sure many activists who worry about these things would worry about something else if there was anything worse on Earth to worry about, but there isn't.

50 casks in one place, an amount actually being planned for some reactor sites, is a dreadful catastrophe waiting to happen.  ONE CASK, IN ONE PLACE, is a dreadful catastrophe waiting to happen.

The average age of the spent fuel in the dry cask is probably 20 years or more right now.  The fuel's cladding is becoming more and more embrittled every day, so that when these casks are finally upended and then transported thousands of miles, almost surely no sooner than 2010, the fuel in the casks, or the casks themselves, may not be able to take the strain.  If anyone bothers to inspect the casks prior to moving them, and actually finds some embrittlement (which they almost surely will find if they look carefully enough), then they will probably just decide to transport the casks while keeping them vertical -- much more slowly, at much greater expense and vulnerability.

When the casks are finally moved, they will be moved through railroad tunnels, over bridges, into and out of major metropolises, along rivers -- and anywhere, they might be destroyed, and permanently blight the landscape for thousands of square miles around them -- each dry cask has that much radioactive waste in it.

While they are moved through all these danger points, other traffic will also be on the tracks, highways, on the sidings as the trains pass each other, etc. etc..  Some of this other traffic will also be carrying hazardous loads, such as cyanide, fuel oil, explosives, chlorine gas, etc. etc..  No one will be tracking what goes in or what goes out, for the most part.  Oh, they say they will.  But the programs to do so are not in place and are not conceivable for many years to come.  When a nuclear fuel load is transported right now (as happens every so often), the moving team doesn't know what's in every other vehicle it passes!  They will continue not to know for the foreseeable future, and if they did somehow know all this stuff, the information would also be available to terrorists, because it would have to all be computerized, and that information could conceivably be hacked.

A rocket-propelled grenade, or some well-placed explosives, or a small plane, could each knock over a dry cask storage unit (some are completely out in the open).  The stress on the embrittled fuel rods in such a scenario would be extremely dangerous and probably catastrophic.  (Because of this, some Dry Cask Storage designs keep the fuel horizontal, but in this position the fuel rods themselves exert a destructive force between each bracket, which can lead to catastrophic failure of the assemblies.  The phrase "you can't win" was never more apt than when talking about nuclear waste.) 

All these hazards and many more make Dry Cask Storage an insane solution to a crazy problem we never should have had in the first place.



A very few words about Spent Fuel Pools:  In some BWRs, they sit atop the reactor, vulnerable even to Cessna 172s, as well as to reactor meltdowns, earthquakes, etc. etc. etc..  I could go on about grenades being tossed into them and so forth, and how some have pieces of fuel assemblies lying at the bottom of them because the assemblies are crumbling, and about how a 300 lb bolt was dropped into a spent fuel pool by accident one time, but fortunately the water didn't all suddenly leak out, which can be a serious problem, especially right after a refueling operation puts lots of new "hot" fuel into the pool.

For these sorts of reasons, Spent Fuel Pools are an insane solution to a crazy problem we never should have had in the first place.

Russell Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, CA


For a list of all nuclear power reactors in the United States: