The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is undertaking a study to ensure the spent fuel pools at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station can maintain safety guidelines despite the degradation of a material used to control the radioactive waste.
At issue is Boraflex, which absorbs neutrons from fuel that was once burned in a reactor. The spent fuel is still highly radioactive when it is placed in the cooling pool, said Neil Sheehan, NRC spokesman.
Though the temperature of the radioactive waste drops dramatically within a few months, conditions must be controlled to make sure it doesn’t start fission, he said. To this end, Boraflex panels are attached to racks where the spent fuel is stored, 40 feet underwater at the bottom of the spent fuel pool, he said.
But gamma rays, the strongest form of radiation, have caused shrinkage in the Boraflex, so NRC inspectors will examine whether the existing material is safe for use until 2014, when owner Exelon Nuclear plans to replace it, he said.
He said there are 19 reactors nationwide that use Boraflex, and problems have also been noted at other facilities.
"They want to say that even with the degradation, there’s still a sufficient safety margin," he said. "We’re saying our comfort level is not enough that we would agree with that assessment at this point."
Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, a nuclear power plant, is located 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Harrisburg in Peach Bottom Township, York County, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River on the Maryland border.
According to an NRC report, Exelon has moved the spent fuel assemblies in both spent fuel pools to locations where the Boraflex has been holding up better.
There were 201 assemblies relocated in Unit 2, and 83 assemblies relocated in Unit 3.
In March 31, 1987 US Peach Bottom units 2 and 3 shutdown due to cooling malfunctions and unexplained equipment problems.
In September 2007, former employee Kerry Beal videotaped Peach Bottom security guards sleeping on the job. Beal had previously tried to notify supervisors at Wackenhut Corp. and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He was eventually fired during the Exelon security transition, a decision which made a list of the 101 "dumbest moments in business" in the Jan 16, 2008 issue of Fortune.