The recent fuel failure at the North Anna Nuclear plant where about 15 fuel pellets were released into the reactor coolant system was not unusual nor a surprise. This issue of water jet baffling was documented in great detail by the NRC as early as 1982. The problem is unique to Westinghouse PWR reactors. The NRC discussed a fairly simple fix to prevent this from happening by making some modification to the baffle systems during a refueling outage.
Since this was a known issue that the NRC had discussed repeatedly with nuclear utilities, why Dominion never bothered to make these changes to either of their two reactors at North Anna remains a question. Two options could have been used in Westinghouse reactors to prevent this issue. One would be to just run fuel assemblies in the at risk locations with stainless steel “dummy” rods on the places where the baffling is a problem among the fuel assembly. The other would be to do the known modifications to the baffling and structural system so the problem does not exist. Dominion opted to do neither. Since Dominion operated without making changes to prevent this problem, any other Westinghouse PWR units worldwide could also potentially have this same problem.
The fuel pellet loss into the coolant water doesn’t appear to be capable of creating any sort of catastrophic cascading failure event at a reactor. It does however create high levels of radioactivity in the coolant water and that workers could potentially be exposed to. It also creates a safety risk in the spent fuel pools as they now have to manage damaged spent fuel assemblies. This complicates management of the spent fuel pool coolant water and can raise radiation levels.
A Slovakian reactor had the same issue (this document explains much more detail and translates well to English with Google Translate)
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