Seattle-based Heart of America Northwest and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility called Wednesday for the nuclear power plant near Richland to be shut down based on a study they commissioned.
The Columbia Generating Station’s storage pool that cools used nuclear fuel is vulnerable in the event of a catastrophic accident, said the report by Robert Alvarez, a frequent critic of nuclear power and a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
The report also questioned worker protection at the plant and whether nearby environmental cleanup at Hanford’s 618-11 Burial Ground could result in an accident that would harm workers at the nuclear power plant.
Physicians for Social Responsibility is asking utility owners, including Seattle City Light, to close down the reactor. It directly employs about 850 of Energy Northwest’s 1,100 employees and provides about 4 percent of the electricity in the Northwest through the Bonneville Power Administration.
The report is “64 pages of details about a plant that the author knows very little about,” said Mike Paoli, spokesman for Energy Northwest. Much of it is a rehash of claims Physicians for Social Responsibility has made in the last year, he added.
The report concluded that safely storing used nuclear fuel at the nuclear power plant is a major public safety priority. Used fuel is stored within the reactor until it is cooled enough to remove to dry cask storage outside the building.
“The most dangerous wastes are located in the elevated spent fuel pool, perched five stories above the ground next to the reactor,” Alvarez said in a statement.
If the pool were to lose water during a catastrophic event, such as a severe earthquake, fuel could catch fire and the fallout could spread radioactive material, according to the report. It cited a National Academy of Science panel that said in 2004 that such fires at nuclear plants could create thermal plumes that would transport radioactive materials hundreds of miles downwind in certain weather conditions.
Energy Northwest countered that such a fire in a steel-lined concrete structure is so unlikely that it is not one of the postulated events for the reactor, “and we postulate everything,” Paoli said.
Reactors in Fukushima, Japan, also stored spent fuel several stories above ground. When those reactors were hit with one of the largest earthquakes the world has known, a tsunami and three explosions that blew off roofs, the spent fuel pools did not lose any water, Paoli said.
Energy Northwest is having a new earthquake assessment conducted after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered studies for all nuclear power reactors it regulates, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory could have the assessment completed next month, he said.
The report also criticized worker safety, saying that from 1999 to 2011 the Energy Northwest plant was responsible for nearly half of the worker radiation exposure of all workers on the Department of Energy’s Hanford nuclear reservation.
The Columbia Generating Station is on leased land at Hanford, where weapons plutonium was produced during the Cold War. Federal work at Hanford is underway to clean up contamination left by past defense operations.
Among commercial nuclear power plants, workers at the Columbia Generating Station had the third-largest collective exposure reported at the 28 single-unit reactors in the United States between 1997 and 2011, according to the report.
Paoli said the Energy Northwest nuclear plant has not exceeded federal limits for worker exposure annually for at least 17 years, the time period when records were immediately accessible. The federal limit is 5,000 millirem per year and Energy Northwest sets its own limit at 2,000 millirem per year to ensure workers remain well below the federal limit.
“In practical terms, international airline pilots over a career will receive more radiation from atmospheric background radiation than career nuclear workers,” he said.
The reactor stands near the Hanford 618-11 Burial Ground, where high-hazard wastes from some Hanford weapons work is buried, including waste from research and uranium fuel manufacturing. DOE has called cleanup of the burial ground, used through about 1967, one of the most challenging cleanup projects at Hanford.
Excavation is required to be completed by fall 2018. DOE has installed some infrastructure but has not scheduled the start of the work yet.
“It’s clear, even based on early safety standards that location of this nuclear power plant would not have been permitted if it was known to be right next to a shallow burial site holding high-level radioactive waste,” Alvarez said.
An accident during DOE cleanup of the site could overexpose workers and contaminate the nuclear power plant site, the report said. It called for enhanced emergency preparedness.
Energy Northwest is waiting for a safety analysis from DOE, Paoli said. If it has confidence in the analysis it will request a license amendment from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A license amendment is required for any industrial activity that could impact the plant, he said.
“Before we begin the work there, we will develop a plan to characterize the waste, protect our workers and safeguard the operations and employees of the Columbia Generating Station,” said DOE spokesman Cameron Hardy.