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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 "spent fuel"

Why Fukushima Is a Greater Disaster than Chernobyl and a Warning Sign for the U.S.

April 20, 2012 ·

In the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear power disaster, the news media is just beginning to grasp that the dangers to Japan and the rest of the world posed by the Fukushima-Dai-Ichi site are far from over.   After repeated warnings by former senior Japanese officials, nuclear experts, and now a U.S. Senator, it is sinking in that the irradiated nuclear fuel stored in spent fuel pools amidst the reactor ruins may have far greater potential offsite consequences  than the molten cores.

After visiting the site recently, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote to Japan's ambassador to the U.S. stating that, "loss of containment in any of these pools could result in an even greater release than the initial accident."

This is why:

  • Each pool contains irradiated fuel from several years of operation, making for an extremely large radioactive inventory without a strong containment structure that encloses the  reactor cores;
  • Several  pools are now completely open to the atmosphere because the reactor buildings were  demolished by explosions; they are about 100 feet above ground and could possibly topple or collapse from structural damage coupled with another powerful earthquake; 
  • The loss of water exposing the spent fuel will result in overheating can cause melting and ignite its zirconium metal cladding – resulting in a fire that could deposit large amounts of radioactive materials over hundreds of miles.

Irradiated nuclear fuel, also called "spent fuel," is extraordinarily radioactive.  In a matter of seconds, an unprotected human one foot away from a single freshly removed spent fuel assembly would receive a lethal dose of radiation within seconds. As one of the most dangerous materials in the world, spent reactor fuel poses significant long-term risks, requiring isolation in a geological disposal site that can protect the human environment for tens of thousands of years.

Fukushima's devastation two weeks after the tsunami.It's almost 26 years since the Chernobyl reactor exploded and caught fire releasing enormous amounts of radioactive debris. The Chernobyl accident revealed the folly of not having an extra barrier of thick concrete and steel surrounding the reactor core that is required for modern plants in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere. The Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident revealed the folly of storing huge amounts of highly radioactive spent fuel in vulnerable pools, high above the ground.

What both accidents have in common is widespread environmental contamination from cesium-137.  With a half-life of 30, years, Cs-137 gives off penetrating radiation, as it decays.  Once in the environment, it mimics potassium as it accumulates in biota and the human food chain for many decades.  When it enters the human body, about 75 percent lodges in muscle tissue, with perhaps the most important muscle being the heart.  Studies of chronic exposure  to Cs-137 among  the people living near Chernobyl show an alarming rate of heart problems, particularly among children. 

As more information is made available, we now know that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi site is storing 10,833 spent fuel assemblies (SNF) containing roughly 327 million curies of long-lived radioactivity About 132 million curies is cesium-137 or nearly  85 times the amount estimated to have been released at Chernobyl.

The overall problem we face is that nearly all of the spent fuel at the Dai-Ichi site is in vulnerable pools in a high risk/consequence earthquake zone. The urgency of the situation is underscored by the ongoing seismic activity around NE Japan in which 13 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 - 5.7 have occurred off the NE coast of Honshu in the last 4 days between 4/14 and 4/17.  This has been the norm since the first quake and tsunami hit the site on March 11th of last year. Larger quakes are expected closer to the power plant.

Last week, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revealed plans to remove 2,274 spent fuel assemblies from the damaged reactors that will probably take at least a decade to accomplish. The first priority will be removal of the contents in Pool No. 4. This pool is structurally damaged and contains about 10 times more cesium-137 than released at Chernobyl. Removal of SNF from the No. 4 reactor is optimistically expected to begin at the end of 2013. A significant amount of construction to remove, debris and reinforce the structurally-damaged reactor buildings, especially the fuel- handling areas, will be required.

Also, it is not safe to keep 1,882 spent fuel assemblies containing ~57 million curies of long-lived radioactivity, including nearly 15 times more cs-137 than released at Chernobyl  in the elevated pools at reactors 5, 6, and 7, which did not experience melt-downs and explosions.

The main reason why there is so much spent fuel at the Da-Ichi site, is that it was supposed to be sent to the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which has experienced 18 lengthy delays throughout its construction history.  Plutonium and uranium was to be extracted from the spent fuel there, with the plutonium to be used as fuel at the Monju fast reactor.

After several decades and billions of dollars, the United States effectively abandoned the "closed" nuclear fuel cycle 30 years ago for cost and nuclear non-proliferation reasons. Over the past 60 years, the history of fast reactors using plutonium is littered with failures the most recent being the Monju project in Japan. Monju was cancelled in November of last year, dealing a fatal blow to the dream of a "closed" nuclear fuel cycle in Japan.
 
The stark reality, if TEPCO's plan is realized, is that nearly all of the spent fuel at the Da-Ichi containing some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet will remain indefinitely in vulnerable pools. TEPCO wants to store the spent fuel from the damaged reactors in the common pool, and only to resort to dry, cask storage when the common pool's capacity is exceeded. At this time, the common pool is at 80 percent storage capacity and will require removal of  SNF to make room. TEPCO's plan is to minimize dry cask storage as much as possible and to rely indefinitely on vulnerable pool storage.  Senator Wyden finds that TEPCO's plan for remediation carries extraordinary and continuing risk. He sensibly recommends that retrieval of spent fuel in existing on-site spent fuel pools to safer storage in dry casks should be a priority.

Given these circumstances, a key goal for the stabilization of the Fukushima-Daichi site is to place all of its spent reactor fuel into dry, hardened storage casks. This will require about 244 additional casks at a cost of about $1 mllion per cask. To accomplish this goal, an international effort is required – something that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has called for. As we have learned, despite the enormous destruction from the earthquake and tsunami at the Dai-Ich Site, the nine dry casks and their contents were unscathed.  This is an important lesson we should not ignore.
Dangerous Nuclear Spent Fuel Pool Near Epicenter of East Coast Earthquake

August 23, 2011 ·

An earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale just occurred less than a hour ago. Its epicenter was in Mineral, Virginia, approximately 10 miles from two nuclear power reactors at the North Anna site. According to statement by a representative of Dominion Power the two reactors were designed to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 quake. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked the North Anna Reactors as being seventh in the nation in terms of earthquake risks.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires control rods to be automatically inserted to halt a reactor, if it is impacted by an earthquake. However, the reactor still has a large amount of decay heat that requires either offsite or back-up diesel generators to prevent a meltdown. This was the problem that led to severe accidents at the Fukushima nuclear site on Japan. It is not clear at this time what damage might have been sustained at the nuclear site.

The North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design and went on line in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Since then the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials — among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.

Nearly 40 percent of the radioactivity in the North Anna spent fuel pools is cesium-137, a long-lived radioisotope that gives off potentially dangerous penetrating radiation and also accumulates in food over a period of centuries. The North Anna Pools hold about 15-30 times more cesium-137 than was released by the Chernobyl accident in 1986. In 2003, the Institute for Policy Studies helped lead a study warning that drainage of a pool might cause a catastrophic radiation fire, which could render an area uninhabitable greater than that created by the Chernobyl accident.

The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain four to five times more spent fuel than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool, if offsite power is lost. Even though they contain these very large amounts of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the United States are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the elements.

Fukushima Aftermath: New U.S. Senate Proposal For Spent Fuel Storage

July 7, 2011 ·

The effects of radiation released from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant continue to be felt, as the U.S. Congress is readying proposals to deal with the storage of spent nuclear fuel in this side of the world.

The effects of the Fukushima nuclear crisis are beginning to be felt. Now, a bipartisan group in the Senate wants to solve the issue of nuclear spent fuel storage. Creative Commons photo by DigitalGlobe-Imagery. Back in March, when news broke that the Fukushima nuclear plant had been hit by the earthquake and tsunami catastrophe , IPS senior scholar Robert Alvarez predicted that the effects of radiation would be episodic and occur over time. Now those episodes are presenting themselves, according to Sandhya Jain at the Daily Pioneer:

Two whales caught 650 km away from the melting reactors have shown intense radiation, and plutonium — just one pound evenly distributed to every person on Earth could kill all — has been found dangerously far from the site. 

The article also notes that almost three months after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan, workers still do not have access to all the areas needing cleanup. Meanwhile, Richard Black, environmental correspondent at the BBC, recently analyzed the history of nuclear power and found an industry that has created a business model that makes states inheritably connected to all the liabilities, but unable to participate in profit-sharing. In Fukushima, taxpayers will carry almost the entirety of the $100 billion cleanup costs. Black adds:

Accidents as big as Fukushima are, fortunately, very rare.

But even without them, the risk that liabilities will fall on the public purse is higher than for other energy technologies, simply because of the timescale.

That timescale refers to the long time that nuclear waste is bound to outlive any of us. In the U.S. the plan to create a vast national storage site in Yucca Mountain was put aside, but a bipartisan duo in the Senate - made up of Sen. Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Landrieu (D-LA) - is looking to pass legislation creating new storage sites for nuclear spent fuel.  In this push, however, senators hope to avoid re-creating a situation where one site bears the burden of storing the entire nation’s nuclear waste. Their proposal calls for the Department of Energy to create two storage sites on a temporary basis.

Restarting the conversation is a positive first step, and provides a bit of hope for the bill actually making it to the president’s desk at a time where congressional gridlock has prevented action in many critical issues. 

Known Exposure

June 6, 2011 ·

In 1980, Jack Willis and IPS scholar and filmmaker Saul Landau produced the Emmy award-winning documentary, Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang. This powerful film tells the stories of everyday civilians and servicemen who were deliberately exposed to ultimately lethal doses of radiation during 1950s atomic bomb testing. The film also reveals the U.S. government suppression of the health hazards of low-level radiation. In light of the Fukushima disaster, the film remains tragically relevant today.

The first major expose of radiation human experiments was disclosed in the late 1960s by IPS Fellow Paul Jacobs. The experiments that Paul exposed involved giving deadly "battlefield" doses of radiation to poor, mainly black charity cancer patients by a University of Cincinnati radiologist, Eugene Sanger. The Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense had wanted to know how much radiation would render a soldier ineffective.

As I watched Saul’s grainy film, and as I learned about Paul’s important research, I wanted to believe that these tragic experiences of the past had at least helped to protect all of us from the dangers of nuclear radiation.

Yet, the radiation threats that Saul and Paul confirmed more than 30 years ago are echoed alarmingly in the new in-depth report by IPS scholar Bob Alvarez.

In the early 1980s, Bob found Paul's files at IPS as part of his research and, subsequently, produced a detailed report, which was used in a 1984 House Energy and Commerce investigation. Bob is now exposing the ongoing, monumental hazards caused by the unsafe practice of storing spent fuel at nuclear reactors across our nation.

The facts and statistics are alarming: More than 30 million highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods are submerged in vulnerable storage pools at reactors all over the United States. If compromised, these fuel rods are so deadly that a motorcyclist blasting past them at 60 mph at a distance of one foot would be killed from the effects of that fleeting radiation exposure. Bob has collaborated with Physicians for Social Responsibility on an interactive map that allows anyone to enter their zip code and assess the danger of a potential nuclear accident in their neighborhood.

The spent fuel pools located at U.S. nuclear reactors house some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the world yet they are kept in flimsy, hazardous storage units, ripe for catastrophe in case of a natural disaster or even a prolonged electricity outage. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has failed to secure these stockpiles and life-threatening incidents have already occurred at these pools.

As Saul, Paul, and Bob demonstrate, the U.S. government has consistently failed to inform the public about the extremely high risk of radiation. We will continue to do our utmost to educate the U.S. public until our government gets the message.

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.