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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries tagged "Nuclear Power"

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U.S. on a Pedestal of Nuclear Immorality

September 21, 2012 ·

30-plus years ago Iranian zealots grabbed some CIA and Embassy folk in Teheran and held them hostage, and then let them go, and Reagan took credit. But before we plunge into military conflict with Iran, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu extols, the press might indulge its public in some useful historical review – they forgot some important history – to try to deal with the alleged threat of "nuclear mullahs" as Bill Keller called Iran’s religious leaders.

Maybe, start with questions like: What did we do to Iran and what role did our government have in fostering its nuclear program? And why does Israel’s insistence on U.S. backing become so important to U.S. policy?

Read the rest of this blog post in Progreso Weekly.

Japan's Nuclear Catastrophe Leaves Little to Celebrate on Children's Day

April 29, 2011 ·

May 5 is Children’s Day, a Japanese national holiday that celebrates the happiness of childhood. This year, it will fall under a dark, radioactive shadow.

Japanese children in the path of radioactive plumes from the crippled nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station are likely to suffer health problems that a recent government action will only exacerbate.

On April 19, the Japanese government sharply ramped up its radiation exposure limit to 2,000 millirem per year (20 mSv/y) for schools and playgrounds in Fukushima prefecture. Japanese children are now permitted to be exposed to an hourly dose rate 165 times above normal background radiation and 133 times more than levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows for the American public. Japanese school children will be allowed to be exposed to same level recommended by the International Commission on Radiation Protection for nuclear workers. Unlike workers, however, children won’t have a choice as to whether they can be so exposed.

This decision callously puts thousands of children in harm's way.

Experts consider children to be 10 to 20 times more vulnerable to contracting cancer from exposure to ionizing radiation than adults. This is because as they grow, their dividing cells are more easily damaged — allowing cancer cells to form. Routine fetal X-rays have ceased worldwide for this reason. Cancer remains a leading cause of death by disease for children in the United States.

On April 12, the Japanese government announced that the nuclear crisis in Fukushima was as severe as the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Within weeks of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, the four ruined reactors at the Dai-Ichi power station released enormous quantities of radiation into the atmosphere.

According to the Daily Youmiri, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) announced that between 10 and 17 million curies (270,000- 360,000 TBq) of radioactive materials were released to the atmosphere before early April, a great deal more than previous official estimates.

Even though atmospheric releases blew mostly out to sea and appear to have declined dramatically, NISA reports that Fukushima's nuclear ruins are discharging about 4,200 curies of iodine-131 and cesium-137 per day into the air (154 TBq). This is nearly 320,000 times more than d radiation the now de-commissioned Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant released over a year. NISA's estimate is likely to be the low end, given the numerous sources of unmeasured and unfiltered leaks into the environment amidst the four wrecked reactors. On April 27, Bloomberg News reported that radiation readings at the Dai-Ichi nuclear power station have risen to the highest levels since the earthquake.

With a half-life of 8.5 days, iodine-131 is rapidly absorbed in dairy products and in the human thyroid, particularly those of children. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years and gives off potentially dangerous external radiation. It concentrates in various foods and is absorbed throughout the human body. Unlike iodine-131, which decays to a level considered safe after about three months, cesium-137 can pose risks for several hundred years.

Measurements taken at 1,600 nursery schools, kindergartens, and middle school playgrounds in early April indicate that children are regularly getting high radiation doses. Radiation levels one meter above the ground indicate that children at hundreds of schools received exposures 43- 200 times above background. And this is outside of the "exclusionary zone" around the Dai-Ichi reactors, where locals have been evacuated. Japan's Ministry of Education and Science has limited outdoor activities at 13 schools in the cities of Fukushima, Date, and Koriyama Cities.

Although the extent of long-term contamination is not yet fully known, disturbing evidence is emerging. Data collected 40 kilometers from the Fukushima's nuclear accident  show cumulative levels as high as 9.5 rems (95 mSv) — nearly five times the international annual occupational dose. Soil beyond the 30-kilometer evacuation zone shows cesium-137 levels at 2,200 kBq per square meter — 67 percent greater than that requiring evacuation near Chernobyl.

Three-fourths of the monitored schools in Fukushima had radioactivity levels so high that human entry shouldn't be allowed, even though students began a new semester on April 5.

How to Avoid our own Fukushima

March 25, 2011 ·

In an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2002, Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar Robert Alvarez wrote, "several events could cause a loss of pool water, including leakage, evaporation, siphoning, pumping, aircraft impact, earthquake, accidental or deliberate drop of a fuel transport cask, reactor failure, or an explosion inside or outside the pool building." The recent loss of pool water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex and subsequent radiation release tragically illustrated his point.

A year later, a group of nuclear scientists and academics – including Alvarez – published a report theorizing the potential damage that a terrorist attack on nuclear plants could cause and calling for the spent fuel in nuclear reactors to be stored in dry, underground casks. Their report faced stark opposition from the agency charged with regulating the nuclear industry – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Following a presentation to the commission by the report's authors, one of the commissioners ordered a staff directive(pdf) with a hurried tone Alvarez still remembers: "Is there a chance that we can have a hard hitting critique of the Alvarez study anytime soon?"

Similarly, in the aftermath of Japan's nuclear crisis, staunch nuclear energy defenders are trying to derail an urgent discussion about nuclear safety by telling us to focus on the tsunami.

For the Alvarez report, the hard-hitting critique ordered by the members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission came later that year. The National Academy of Sciences was ordered by Congress to referee the dispute and to commission its own report on the spent fuel danger. That report agreed: cask storage is safer than pool storage to prevent catastrophic circumstances of any sort. To this day, those recommendations remain ignored by the government. Most spent fuel is being stored onsite at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors.

Ignoring this issue and hoping that people would just forget about nuclear dangers had worked just fine for the nuclear lobby, which sought to dismantle already weak U.S. regulations, until recently. In June of last year, a poll commissioned by the industry-friendly Nuclear Energy Institute found that support for nuclear energy was at an all-time high among supporters of both political parties(pdf). The Fukushima disaster reaffirmed nuclear energy's dangers, however, and the public's stance has dramatically changed, with a majority opposing the construction of new reactors and preferring investments in renewable alternatives. The government should finally address the dangers posed by unsafe storage practices for spent fuel.

Following Japan's terrifying nuclear crisis, it's time to get bureaucratic regulators do their job instead of cozying up to the demands of companies they're supposed to regulate. People from all over the world are lending their support to the people of Japan. Let's learn the lessons of their struggle. We need an energy strategy that emphasizes safer nuclear waste storage, discourages the construction of new reactors, and makes renewable energy sources such as wind and solar a top priority.

Safeguarding Spent Fuel Pools in the United States

March 21, 2011 ·

As this photograph shows, the spent fuel pools at Units 3 and 4 at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex are exposed to the open sky and might be draining. The radioactive dose rates coming off the pools appear to be life-threatening. Lead-shielded helicopters are trying to dump water over the pools/reactors could not get close enough to make much difference because of the dangerous levels of radiation.

Crippled Daiichi ComplexIf the spent fuel is exposed, the zirconium cladding encasing the spent fuel can catch fire — releasing potentially catastrophic amounts of radiation, particularly cesium-137. Here's an article I wrote in January 2002 in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists about spent fuel pool dangers.

In October 2002, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire — serving at that time as her state's attorney general — organized a group letter to Congress signed by her and 26 of her counterparts across the nation. In it, they requested greater safeguards for reactor spent-fuel pools. The letter urged "enhanced protections for one of the most vulnerable components of a nuclear power plant — its spent fuel pools." It was met with silence.

In January 2003, my colleagues and I warned that a drained spent fuel pool in the U.S. could lead to a catastrophic fire that would result in long-term land contamination substantially worse than what the Chernobyl accident unleashed. An area around the Chernobyl site roughly half the size of New Jersey continues to be considered uninhabitable.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the nuclear energy industry strongly disagreed. Congress then asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to referee this dispute.

In 2004, after the NRC tried unsuccessfully to suppress its report, the NAS panel agreed with our findings. The Academy panel stated that a “partially or completely drained pool could lead to a propagating zirconium cladding fire and release large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment."

U.S. reactors are each holding at least four times as much spent fuel as the individual pools at the wrecked Daiichi nuclear complex in Fukushima. According to the Energy Department, about 63,000 metric tons of spent fuel has been generated as of this year, containing approximately 12.4 billion curies. These pools contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet. Merely 14 percent of U.S. spent fuel is in dry storage.

At this stage it's critical that:

  • The NRC hold off on renewing operating licenses for nuclear reactors, given our newfound certainty that many sites in earthquake zones could experience greater destruction than previously assumed.
  • The NRC promptly require reactor owners to end the dense compaction of spent fuel, and ensure that at least 75 percent of the spent fuel in pools operating above their capacity be removed and placed into dry, hardened storage containers on site, which are more likely to withstand earthquakes.

In our 2003 study, we estimated that it would take about 10 years to do this with existing technology, at an expense of $3.5 to $7 billion.

The Drained Spent-Fuel Pool at Unit 4

March 17, 2011 ·

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Congress that the water in the spent-fuel pool at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station's Unit 4 has drained. As the NRC's chairman, Jaczko's statement is conveying not only the expert opinion of the commission and its staff, but of the United States government.

At this stage I think that heroic, last-ditch measures are being undertaken. It's likely that the dose rates coming off Unit 4 are life-threatening and that this is a major problem for restoring water, and repairing the pool.

The accident won't happen all at once and is likely to unfold, perhaps, over a period of weeks. The radioactive plumes will vary from the wind directions and will fluctuate. My concern is that very large inventories in plumes in the near future may arise.

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