PNNL team weighs options for removing spent fuel from reactor sites

September 2, 2021, 7:00AMRadwaste Solutions
Participants in a site evaluation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. (Photo: Steve Maheras/PNNL)

Over the past decade, the Department of Energy has been collecting data on nuclear power plants to help plan for the eventual removal of spent nuclear fuel from the sites, performing site evaluations to assess transportation infrastructure and the transportability of spent fuel.

Those site evaluations have come a long way since the first three sites—Maine Yankee, Yankee Rowe, and Connecticut Yankee—were assessed in 2012, according to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which is highlighting the evolution of the site evaluations and how they are conducted in a recent Web feature, “Steering the Future of Spent Nuclear Fuel.”

The experts: The first evaluations were conducted by a small team of nuclear experts that set off on a several-hundred-mile road trip to evaluate the three closed New England nuclear power plants over the course of three days. Among the team was Steve Maheras, a nuclear engineer in PNNL’s Nuclear Sciences Division.

To date, Maheras and various colleagues have completed a total of 16 nuclear power plant site evaluations and one virtual evaluation. The outcomes of their visits were published in an April 2021 report to the DOE titled Nuclear Power Plant Infrastructure Evaluations for Removal of Spent Nuclear Fuel.

According to PNNL, the report reflects the lab’s dedication to bringing together the right kinds of experts, including local communities and tribes, to effectively plan for accepting and transporting fuel away from the reactor sites.

The innovations: As the site evaluations evolved, Maheras and his team leveraged emerging technology and instrumentation to better document site conditions, PNNL said. This included adding geographical coordinates to photographs using GPS-enabled cameras, filming transportation routes using dashboard-mounted cameras, and generating detailed site maps using Web-based, open-source applications like Google Earth paired with geographic information system data.

Those tools are allowing evaluators to better consider transportation options, including rail line access and capacity, road conditions for heavy-haul vehicle transport, and barge access.

In the months and years to come, PNNL said, the lab will continue to apply “a transformative lens” to its collection of site condition data to aid in the eventual transport of spent fuel.

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