Spent Nuclear Fuel:

Options Exist to Further Enhance Security

GAO-03-426: Published: Jul 15, 2003. Publicly Released: Aug 14, 2003.

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Spent nuclear fuel, the used fuel periodically removed from nuclear power reactors, is one of the most hazardous materials made by man. Nuclear power companies currently store 50,000 tons of spent fuel at 72 sites in 33 states. That amount will increase through 2010, when the Department of Energy (DOE) expects to open a permanent repository for this fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Concerns have been raised since September 11, 2001, that terrorists might target spent fuel. GAO was asked to (1) review federally sponsored studies that assessed the potential health effects of a terrorist attack or a severe accident on spent fuel, either in transit or in storage, and (2) identify options for DOE to further enhance the security of spent fuel during shipping to Yucca Mountain.

The likelihood of widespread harm from a terrorist attack or a severe accident involving commercial spent nuclear fuel is low, according to studies conducted by DOE and NRC. Largely because spent fuel is hard to disperse and is stored in protective containers, these studies found that most terrorist or accident scenarios would cause little or no release of spent fuel, with little harm to human health. Some assessments found widespread harm is possible under certain severe but extremely unlikely conditions involving spent fuel stored in storage pools. As part of its ongoing research program and to respond to increased security concerns, NRC has ongoing and planned studies of the safety and security of spent fuel, including the potential effects of more extreme attack scenarios, including deliberate aircraft crashes. While NRC and DOE have found that spent fuel may be relatively safe and secure, DOE could potentially enhance the security of this fuel through options such as minimizing the number of shipments and picking up fuel in an order that would reduce risk, such as moving older less dangerous fuel first. These options could reduce the risk during transport and at some locations where the fuel is currently stored. However, contractual agreements between DOE and owners of spent fuel may limit DOE's ability to choose among these options. In addition, it is not clear that the benefits of these measures would justify the potential costs, including a possible renegotiation of the contracts between DOE and the spent fuel owners.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that all reasonable options to further enhance the security and safety of spent fuel in storage at nuclear power plants and in transit are explored, the Secretary of Energy should assess the potential benefits and costs of minimizing the total number of shipments of spent fuel by consolidating shipments where possible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE's August 16, 2004 report, "Consolidating Shipments of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel to Yucca Mountain: An Evaluation of System-Wide Costs and Benefits" assessed the potential costs and benefits associated with the consolidation of shipments--this report was responsive to our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all reasonable options to further enhance the security and safety of spent fuel in storage at nuclear power plants and in transit are explored, the Secretary of Energy should assess the potential benefits and costs of shipping spent fuel in an order that further minimizes risk.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE's August 16, 2004 report, "Costs and Benefits of Various Orders in Which Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Could Be Selected For Shipment to Yucca Mountain" assessed the order in which shipments could be selected for shipment--this report was responsive to our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all reasonable options to further enhance the security and safety of spent fuel in storage at nuclear power plants and in transit are explored, the Secretary of Energy should assess the potential benefits and costs of emphasizing the use of trains dedicated to hauling spent fuel.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE issued a notice on July 18, 2005 adopting a policy to use dedicated trains for its usual shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to the Yucca Mountain repository site--this action was responsive to our recommendation.

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