updated 2/13/2004 12:03:34 PM ET 2004-02-13T17:03:34

The risks of storing more used radioactive fuel rods from nuclear power plants underwater in adjacent pools are less than previously thought despite the new specter of terrorism, Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said Thursday.

Farouk Eltawila, who directs NRC’s division of systems analysis and regulatory effectiveness, told a National Academy of Sciences panel that “previous NRC studies are overly conservative” and don’t “take advantage of all the work that we have done the past 25 years.”

The new classified study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, will be shown to the scientific panel on Friday. The study shows that more spent fuel rods can be stored safely in pools of water next to reactors and that the storage facilities are well protected against potential terrorist attacks, Eltawila said.

The storage pools are typically about 25 feet wide by 20 feet high, constructed to allow for convective cooling and with racks for storing the rods.

The implications of the new study are that power companies would not have to spend money transferring the fuel rods to dry storage casks until they can be buried at a permanent repository now under construction at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Yucca Mountain

“Not only does it cost too much, it’s not necessary,” said John Vincent of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s top trade group.

Although he hasn’t yet seen the study, Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel called its conclusion an attempt to save electric power companies billions of dollars. He said allowing more high-density storage of nuclear waste will only heighten the terrorism risks.

“It’s very sad,” said von Hippel, a frequent critic of the nuclear industry and its regulators. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been captured by the industry.”

The National Academy panel is meeting this week at Congress’ request to review the safety and security of commercial nuclear spent fuel until a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain is completed sometime during the next decade.

Von Hippel and German scientist Klaus Janberg pointed to their own research showing that the risks are greater than the NRC believes. They also noted that Germany and Switzerland require their spent fuel pools to be built inside containment buildings, a feature that the United States doesn’t require.

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