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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 since March 2011

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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.

The Lineup: Week of March 21-27, 2011

March 21, 2011 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, an op-ed by Alice Slater, a column by Donald Kaul, and a cartoon by Khalil Bendib put Japan's nuclear emergency into context. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

 

  1. CEO Pay Bashing, Tea Party Style / Sam Pizzigati
  2. Japan's Chaos is a Wake-up Call / Alice Slater
  3. No More Deals with Unscrupulous Government Contractors / Neil Gordon
  4. Entrepreneurship by Necessity / Marc Morial
  5. The Dangers of Nuclear 'Ice-Nine' / Donald Kaul
  6. Newt Fakes It / Jim Hightower
  7. Big Bankers Aren't Like the Rest of Us / William A. Collins
  8. Nuclear War and Peace / Khalil Bendib
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.

French Government Advises its Citizens to Stay Away from Tokyo, Japan Stays Silent

March 15, 2011 ·

In the aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, and in light of the possible radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plants in partial meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, on March 13 the French Embassy advised all French citizens in Japan to leave Tokyo for the next few days. In a communiqué, the embassy warned that fallout could settle on Tokyo in "three to four hours" in a worst case scenario and cause widespread contamination.

The communiqué outlined two possible scenarios: The first, more optimistic, scenario involved controlling the various defective nuclear power plants in Fukushima. "In that case, the risk is of a residual contamination from the controlled release of radioactive gas and poses a negligible risk for the Tokyo region. This scenario is favored by the Japanese authorities and a large number of scientists." However, the second scenario would involve an explosion of the reactor, unleashing  a radioactive cloud. "That cloud could arrive in the Tokyo region in a matter of hours depending on the direction and speed of the wind. The risk is of widespread contamination."

The memo went on to say: "The Japanese Weather Report Agency just announced a probable repeat of a magnitude 7 earthquake. The probability is up to 70 percent within three days and 50 percent over the next two days.

"Because of the above (the risk for a strong earthquake and the uncertainty regarding the nuclear situation), it seems reasonable to advise those who do not need to stay around Tokyo to go away from the Kanto region for a few days."

The memo strongly advised all French citizens living close by the nuclear plants "to remain at home (venting systems should be shut down) and to, whenever possible, stock bottles of water and food for many hours. When venturing outside, a breathing mask should be worn."

On the use of potassium iodide tablets as a prophylactic measure, the French embassy wrote: "We remind you that the absorption of iodine is not a benign gesture. Excessive repeated use can be harmful to your health. It is therefore very important to choose carefully the appropriate timing of the absorption when necessary. There again, it is recommended to follow the Japanese authorities recommendations as well as our own recommendations when communicated."

It's ironic that the French are giving such strong advice to their citizens in Japan while the Japanese government has yet to utter such dire warnings for their citizens. France derives 79 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, the highest share in the world. Japan derives 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power.

Here in the United States, we get 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear power. In the aftermath of what appears to be the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown, the White House has reaffirmed its commitment to nuclear power as a "clean" energy resource that the U.S. should  ramp up. President Barack Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that nuclear power was a key facet of a so-called "Clean Energy Standard" which would require power companies to produce 80 percent of their electricity from a variety of sources including nuclear power by 2035.

Obama continues to support nuclear power, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday, even as Germany boldly heeded Japan's tragic wake-up call. Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that seven German nuclear reactors will be shut during a three-month review of their safety. There are 23 reactors in the United States that are the same model as the General Electric Mark 1 models that are in partial meltdown in Fukushima  -- about one in four that are in operation today.

Four reactors in California are on or near earthquake faults, as are others in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and elsewhere around the country. In addition, geologists warn that there appears to be a strong correlation between earthquake "swarms" and nearby natural gas hydro-fracturing of rock and the subsequent high-pressure reinjection of wastewater deep underground. Hydro-fracturing for natural gas -- or "fracking" -- is an increasingly common if controversial U.S. and global practice.

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