The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering an emergency petition from watchdog groups to shut down reactors at Dresden and Quad Cities along with other U.S. reactors with the same design as plants that have melted down in Fukushima, Japan.
It’s rare that the agency decides to investigate such petitions, said Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service  of Chicago, which joined the petition filed by Beyond Nuclear , a national organization. “They couldn’t ignore Fukushima,” he said.
The agency held a preliminary teleconference hearing on the petition last week. Another hearing will be held before a ruling later this year.
The petition calls on NRC to suspend operating licenses for GE Mark 1-type reactors until spent-fuel pools are provided with emergency backup power systems and housed inside protective containment structures.
It also calls for a complete review of the pressure-suppression system NRC approved in 1989 for backfitting on Mark-1 reactors, which failed to operate as designed at Fukushima
Critics have long raised concerns about the reactors’ containment structures and the raised spent-fuel pools, and the still-unfolding disaster at Fukushima confirmed those concerns, said Kraft.
A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies  highlights the danger of decades’ worth of highly irradiated spent fuel collected at U.S. reactors. Many U.S. reactors store far greater amounts of spent fuel than the reactors at Fukushima, according to the report. No other nation has generated as much radioactivity, according to Robert Alvarez, author of the report.
Several Exelon reactors in Illinois are among those with the largest accumulations of spent fuel, according to the report: reactors at Dresden, Byron, Braidwood, and Quad Cities have spent fuel inventories containing more than 200 million curies of radioactivity.
“Spent fuel pools are vulnerable,” according to a fact sheet from IPS – not just to earthquakes or terrorist attack but to human and mechanical error, even to an extended electrical blackout. “If the water were to drain entirely from a spent fuel pool, it could trigger a catastrophic radioactive fire that would spew toxins” and could render thousands of square miles uninhabitable.
The report notes that the risks associated with spent fuel storage have increased over decades of storage and accumulation. With spent fuel rods packed more densely, barriers that prevent nuclear chain reaction in the pools subject to corrosion and cooling systems are “overtaxed,” it argues.
Intensified production methods have also increased risks: reactor cycles have been lengthened to generate more electricity, creating more spent fuel with higher radioactivity and thermal heat; and increased levels of uranium 235 to allow longer operating periods can cause cladding on fuel rods to become brittle.
The report calls for moving spent fuel from storage pools to dry sealed casks.
NEIS is opposing further power uprates at Dresden and Quad Cities and calling for an independent engineering review of Exelon’s proposed power uprates at the rest of its reactor fleet in Illinois. With the cost of new nuclear construction prohibitive, Exelon has embarked on a $3 billion effort to increase power production at its existing fleet.
NEIS has also called for a review of the state’s disaster plans – including consideration of the American Thyroid Association’s recommendation that all households within a 50-mile radius of a reactor be supplied with potassium iodide to protect against radiation poisoning in the event of an accident.
[CORRECTION: The level of radioactivity stored at Illinois reactors, given in paragraph 7, has been corrected: over 200 million curies, not 200 curies.]