The Irradiated Fuels Examination Laboratory, a hot cell facility in the middle of the ORNL campus, would be used for research on spent nuclear fuel from a Virginia reactor under a proposed plan revealed Tuesday. (KNS/Munger photo)
Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason confirmed Tuesday that a proposal under review could bring spent nuclear fuel from a Virginia reactor to the lab for analysis and research.
Mason said the pending project would involve shipment of 25 spent fuel rods from the North Anna Power Station to ORNL. The highly radioactive materials would be cut up and analyzed in shielded hot cells at the lab’s Irradiated Fuels Examination Laboratory, which is being prepped for the work.
At this point, however, plans for the project are still tentative because the U.S. Department of Energy has not approved the proposal, Mason said.
“DOE has not made a decision on this proposal pending a thorough review,” he said. “Until the review is complete there is no firm schedule.”
The nuclear plans were made public Tuesday by three activist groups, including the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, who expressed concern about the project and said they were seeking more information from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The watchdog groups said they had filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get details of the plans for shipping the “high burn-up” nuclear fuel from North Anna to Oak Ridge and possibly other labs.
According to the groups (including Savannah River Site Watch in South Carolina and Snake River Alliance Education Fund in Idaho), the research plan is reportedly twofold, with the first stage to be followed by a later shipment of 20 tons of spent fuel.
Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, said the first shipment is just the camel’s nose.
“What most concerns us is the second shipment,” he said in a statement. “This is some of the nastiest waste created by the nuclear industry. And since there is no approved disposal facility or plan, it’s safe to say if it comes to Oak Ridge, it will never leave.”
Mason said ORNL would analyze the fuel after it’s removed from the reactor and analyze how it evolves over time. He said the first shipment would include 25 “sister” rods from North Anna, which would be the same as other rods that have been placed into storage.
It’s possible that ORNL could receive the rods in storage at a later date, to see how the irradiated materials changed during storage and compare the two groups.
However, Mason said there has been no discussion of ORNL receiving 20 tons of spent fuel. “Indeed, that would exceed our capacity by a significant margin,” the lab director said.
Mason said ORNL has conducted multiple projects involving spent fuel in the past, including a pilot project that reprocessed the fuels on a benchscale.
He said the proposed work fits well with the lab’s — and the Department of Energy’s — nuclear energy programs. It would provide valuable information on how these fuels change with age, which would help officials prepare for their ultimate disposition.
Asked about potential safety concerns involving the transportation and handling of the nuclear materials, Mason said ORNL has the facilities and the personnel to do the job.
“These are nuclear facilities, and there are obviously very rigorous safety evaluations and operating protocols,” he said. “We’re fortunate we have very capable experts in all the different areas.”
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