Officials Scramble to Find Missing Nuclear Fuel Rods

By Joe Palenik

HARTFORD, Connecticut, August 7, 2001 (ENS) - Northeast Utilities of Hartford, Connecticut is conducting an exhaustive investigation into the whereabouts of two nuclear fuel rods from the Millstone Power Station it formerly owned. The rods may be in a water pool on the site or they may have been shipped elsewhere for disposal.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees operations of the country's nuclear fuel plants, requires that the location of all nuclear fuel be strictly monitored, including where all fuel rods are at any given time. The hot radioactive fuel is dangerous if not stored properly.


Millstone Nuclear Power Station (Photo courtesy NRC)
Millstone Unit 1 is being decommissioned, while the facility's other two units are still operating. Unit 2 produces 870 megawatts and Unit 3 generates 1,150 megawatts of power. One megawatt is enough electricity to power approximately 1,000 typical American homes.

In January, Northeast Utilities sold all three Millstone nuclear generating units to Dominion, a Virginia based energy company. During a pre-sale inventory, the two fuel rods could not be found despite paperwork indicating that the rods were placed into a water pool at the plant in 1980.

Spent fuel is stored either in water pools or in specially designed casks, both of which prevent deadly radiation from escaping into the environment.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are two possible scenarios surrounding the missing fuel rods. One is that the rods are safely stored on the site. The other is that they were transported elsewhere in a shielded cask.

"It's up to the company to determine where the fuel is," said Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for the Region 1 NRC office in King of Prussia, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Screnci said removal from the water pool would have triggered plant radiation alarms, which would have been recorded as a reportable incident to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That leads the NRC to believe that the rods are still safely stored on site.

The other possibility, Screnci said, is that the rods were shipped off site in a shielded cask. If that did happen, there are no records to indicate where they could have gone.

In September 1999, Northeast Nuclear Energy, a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, paid a $10 million fine after pleading guilty to an assortment of charges, including falsifying environmental records and giving the NRC false information on the qualifications of plant employees.

Dominion referred a phone request for comment to Northeast Utilities.


Spent nuclear fuel rods are stored in giant pools like this one close to reactor buildings. (Photo courtesy Cogema)
Northeast Utilities spokeswoman Deborah Beauchamp said, "We, as a utility, account for spent fuel by conducting periodic inventories, and we create records of those inventories. So, the investigation includes a number of potential scenarios to explain the disposition or the location of the fuel rods."

The investigation team includes 20 top level experts on nuclear power to probe various scenarios and includes interviews with former and present Millstone employees and exhaustive inspections of the fuel pool, control rod storage racks and fuel assemblies. All the inspections are being videotaped for documentation.

The high-level radioactive rods could have been shipped in error to low-level radioactive waste dumps in Washington State or South Carolina, said Denny Galloway, supervisor of the division of radiation for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (CDEP).

The CDEP, which has an interest in the health and safety of the state's residents, participates in weekly conference calls with those states, Northeast Utilities and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The object is to keep all interested states and agencies appraised of new findings.

"If they were in the fuel pool," Galloway said, "they wouldn't pose any threat to public health and safety. There was some speculation they were disposed of at a low-level waste site."

If they are at a low-level site, there wouldn't be much of a problem, he said, because nuclear waste is handled safely at all sites. There would, he said, be issues of improper disposal of nuclear waste.