Terrorist risk for spent fuel not available for Limerick

Evan Brandt, ebrandt@pottsmerc.com

Residents living near a nuclear power plant in California now have something available to them that no other neighbor of a U.S. nuclear plant has access to -- a better idea of the risks faced if terrorists attack a spent-fuel storage facility.

A federal court decision spurred the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to assess the threat of a terrorist attack on a proposed storage facility for spent nuclear fuel rods at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, outside San Luis Obispo, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A similar storage project is under way at Exelon Nuclear's Limerick Generating Station, but no such assessment of the terrorist threat can be expected there any time soon. That's because the NRC interpreted the 2006 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals 9th Circuit in a very narrow way.

That decision was issued after the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace sued the NRC for its failure to take into account the effect a terrorist attack would have on a spent fuel storage facility proposed for the site in its environmental assessment.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the NRC's appeal last year, the 9th Circuit Appeals Court decision stood. But the NRC decided the decision applied only to the Diablo Canyon project, not to similar fuel storage projects now proliferating at nuclear power plants across the country.

Although the physical aspects of the California project may seem similar on their face to the project under construction in Limerick, there are administrative differences. The most significant is that the permit the NRC is considering for the California spent fuel project is specific to the site, whereas the Limerick permit comes hand-in-hand with the cask system being used to hold the spent fuel rods. As a result, no new permit application was required for the Limerick project because of the cask system chosen for the site.

But while the NRC and Exelon Nuclear may view the two projects differently, some area residents have expressed concerns similar to those raised in California.

According to a draft of the amended environmental assessment for the California site, completed last month by the NRC, the following threats were evaluated for neighbors of a spent-fuel storage facility but for no one else in the country:
    ? The threat posed by a "land-based vehicle bomb."
    ? A "ground assault with the use of an insider."
    ? A "water-borne assault."
    ? "A large aircraft impact similar in magnitude to the attacks of September 11, 2001."

The increased security put into place since the Sept. 11, attacks, the "robust" strength of the casks that will hold the spent fuel, and the fact that the fuel is actually in the form of ceramic pellets unlikely to disperse much beyond the area of the plant itself, all led the NRC to a single conclusion -- "a terrorist attack that would result in a significant release of radiation affecting the public is not reasonably expected to occur."

Although officials of both the NRC and Exelon have said similar things about the Limerick project, no such formal assessment by the NRC exists for the Limerick spent-fuel storage facility.

The nine-page supplement to the California project's original environmental assessment is available on the NRC Web site -- www.nrc.gov/waste.html -- by clicking on "Diablo Canyon" in the quick links box. The NRC is seeking public comment on the document until June 30.

Source: The Pottstown Mercury