San Onofre and High Burnup Nuclear Waste Experiment

San Onofre cask loading into storage bunker

Loading dry storage canister

It’s been two years since San Onofre nuclear reactors were shut down. However, we’re still at risk from the tons of nuclear waste generated by the reactors. A nuclear waste accident could result in permanent evacuation of parts of Southern California and endanger our nation’s food supply, economy, and our health. The plant was shut due to the January 31, 2012 radiation release and unprecedented premature tube wear in the defectively designed replacement steam generators.

Now we learn Southern California Edison chose to switch to a more dangerous “high burnup” uranium fuel that burns longer in the reactor, increasing their profits, but making us less safe. Virtually all U.S. nuclear plants use high burnup fuel, including Diablo Canyon. High burnup fuel is over twice as radioactive and unstable and unpredictable in storage.  

Years to Cool ChartHigh burnup fuel is also much hotter. It requires up to a minimum 20 years cooling in spent fuel pools before it can be transferred to dry storage canisters and casks. The amount of cooling needed depends on how high the burnup is and the percent of Uranium 235 fuel enrichment (up to 5% U-235).

High burnup fuel is so dangerous, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says there is insufficient data to support approval of more than 20 years of dry cask storage of high burnup fuel. And the NRC will not approve transportation containers for high burnup fuel.

Cross Section Fuel Rod Significant Radial Hydride Orientation DE-NE-0000593

Cladding cracks

Numerous scientific reports state high burnup fuel is causing the protective Zirconium metal cladding around the fuel to crack and become brittle. In this more fragile state, the cladding may shatter, which could lead to radiation escaping into the environment. In addition, the Zirconium reacts with the high burnup fuel to create hydrides. If exposed to oxygen, this can result in a hydrogen explosion, similar to Fukushima. The higher the burnup, the more hydrides created.

What is the NRC doing about high burnup fuel problems?

01-14-2013 INMMS Data Gap SlideThe NRC issued a Waste Confidence Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) claiming all the nuclear waste can stay at every nuclear plant in the nation for hundreds of years with no significant environmental impact. They chose to ignore the information on high burnup fuel and other known waste storage technology “data gaps”. The GEIS is based on unsubstantiated hope. Thousands of people submitted comments disagreeing with the GEIS.

The NRC Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the GEIS in October 2014. Four of the five Commissioners normally vote for industry profits over safety. Chairman Allison Macfarlane is the only one who normally votes for safety over profit, so she is frequently outvoted.

What is the Department of Energy (DOE) and nuclear industry doing about high burnup fuel problems? The DOE contracted with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) for a “Demonstration Project”. It’s a $16 million four-year project that will not solve the probem. 

Vertical Cask System

Vertical Cask System

EPRI plans to put high burnup fuel in a stainless steel container that isn’t even approved for high burnup fuel. Then open the container occasionally to see what happens to the fuel assemblies. In addition, because there is no technology that can monitor what is happening inside dry storage containers, EPRI plans to develop that technology. This project, which may be extended for 10 years, is what the nuclear industry is claiming as their solution to the high burnup problem. Basically, they plan to “demonstrate” that high burnup fuel can be stored with no problems. They expect to use this project as proof to the NRC, in spite of all the scientific studies to the contrary.

What can you do?

Share this information with others. Share it with your local, state and federal elected officials and government regulators. Ask them to support real solutions to the high burnup fuel storage problem. Most of them are not aware of or have been misinformed about this issue. Senator Barbara Boxer is Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. This Committee has oversite of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Share the document, “High Burnup Nuclear Fuel, Pushing the Safety Envelope”. It contains more information and technical references.

High Burnup Fuel Recommendations

It is imperative the NRC

  • Stop approval of high burnup fuel (HBF) use.
  • Stop approval of HBF dry cask storage.
  • Make solving high burnup fuel storage problems one of its highest priorities. The DOE EPRI “Demonstration Project” (EPRI High Burn-up Dry Storage Cask Research and Development Project), that the Nuclear Energy Institute is promoting is not a solution. This project only tests HBF in existing cask technology. The TN-32 cask isn’t even approved for HBF. Over ten years after HBF was first produced and stored in dry storage casks, the industry has finally begun to study the consequences. The NRC has been asleep at the switch, allowing this dangerous experiment in the field to proceed.
  • Develop adequate strategies to detect and mitigate unexpected degradation during dry storage. 
  • Absent a comprehensive safety analysis, not approve 32 assembly casks for HBF, such as the NUHOMS® 32PTH2 cask system that San Onofre wants to use.
  • Require all HBF assemblies be containerized in damaged fuel cans prior to loading in dry storage canisters.
  • Require full cask testing, rather than computer simulations and scale models.
  • Reject NRC’s NUREG-2125 Spent Fuel Transportation Risk Assessment as inadequate as it does not address HBF.
  • Reject the NRC’s Waste Confidence Generic Environmental Impact Statement.

Time is of the essence.

  • As of 2012, most fuel in pools for future loading is high burnup and approximately 200 loaded-casks contain HBF.
  • U.S. dry cask storage of HBF (>45 GWd/MTU) started about a decade ago. (GWd/MTU is the number of gigawatt days of energy produced per metric ton of uranium.)
    • Since 2003, Maine Yankee casks contain HBF up to 49.5 GWd/MTU. (Maine Yankee HBF is in damaged fuel cans, due to unknowns with HBF)
    • Since 2005, HB Robinson casks contain HBF up to 56.9 GWd/MTU
    • Since 2006, Oconee casks contain HBF up to 55 GWd/MTU
    • After 2008, many other sites have casks that contain HBF up to 53.8 GWd/MTU, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

For more information and references, go to

About Donna Gilmore

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