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OpinionColumnistsE.J. McMahon

Indian Point, in a first, removing spent nuclear fuel

The station entrance to the plant area

The station entrance to the plant area "Power Block" at Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan. (May 9, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

For the first time, spent nuclear fuel is being removed from a pool at the Indian Point plant's Unit 3 for transfer to storage, the plant's parent company has announced -- and some improvisation is being required to get the job done.

Meanwhile, an official of an environmental group seeking the plant's closure says the effort doesn't go far enough.

Workers were to begin transferring spent fuel -- fuel no longer capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction in an ordinary thermal reactor -- from the unit's spent fuel pool to dry-cask storage on Sunday, Entergy said in a news release. It marks the first spent fuel assemblies removed from the Indian Point 3 pool since the plant first produced power in 1975.

Spent fuel rods are often stored in pools under at least 20 feet of water, which provides adequate shielding from the radiation for anyone near the pool, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's website. Dry-cask storage is an alternative that comes into play when pool capacity is neared or reached.

The building that houses the spent fuel pool at Unit 3 is not able to accommodate the large crane needed to lift the dry-cask storage containers, the release said. Therefore, a smaller, lighter canister was designed for use by the smaller Unit 3 crane.

Workers will place 12 spent fuel assemblies in a canister filled with water and transport it on a roadway from Unit 3 to Unit 2. The fuel assemblies then will be taken out of the canister and placed into the Unit 2 spent fuel pool.

After eight canisters loaded with spent fuel have been unloaded into the Unit 2 pool, 96 spent fuel assemblies then will be removed from the pool, loaded into three large dry-cask storage containers and transported to the outdoor pad, the release said. An additional eight canisters of spent fuel will be moved from the Unit 3 pool to Unit 2's pool to complete the transfer process before next year's refueling outage at Unit 3.

Entergy, which owns and operates the facility, began moving spent fuel from Indian Point 2's spent fuel pool to dry-cask storage in 2007. There are 448 assemblies from Unit 2 and 160 assemblies from the now-shuttered Indian Point 1 stored in 19 casks on the storage pad on-site, according to Entergy. The storage pad has been operating since 2007.

There currently are five dry-cask storage containers loaded with fuel from Unit 1 and 14 dry-cask storage containers loaded with fuel from Unit 2 on the outdoor storage pad.

"The movement of spent fuel from the Unit 3 pool to dry cask storage is a historic milestone and an important step that allows Unit 3 to continue operating well into the future," John Ventosa, site vice president at Indian Point and Entergy's top official at the plant, said in the release.

But Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River program director for the environmental group Riverkeeper, said the transfer fails to adequately address the group's concern that the spent fuel pools have become dangerously overfilled.

"They're moving just enough spent fuel from the spent fuel pool to keep operating the reactor as they have been," Musegaas said. "We're asking them to move a lot more to reduce the fire risk, and they're not doing that."

The removal of spent fuel from the pool makes space available and allows the most recently used fuel to be stored in the pool, the release said. Workers anticipate moving 192 spent fuel assemblies from the Unit 3 pool to the Unit 2 pool, and 96 assemblies to dry-cask storage in the next several months.

The process for moving spent fuel from Unit 3 differs from the process used at Unit 2 and required approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That approval was given to Entergy in July.

The Indian Point plant is home to two operating nuclear power plants, Unit 2 and Unit 3, which generate about 2,000 megawatts of electricity for homes, business and public facilities in New York City and Westchester County, the release said.


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