Improving Spent-Fuel Storage at Nuclear Reactors

This article originally appeared on the Winter 2012 issues of Issues in Science and Technology, the magazine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Introduction:

PATRICK NAGATANI, Contaminated Radioactive Sediment, Mortandad Canyon, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, Chromogenic print, 17 x 22 inches, 1990.

PATRICK NAGATANI, Contaminated Radioactive Sediment, Mortandad Canyon, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, Chromogenic print, 17 x 22 inches, 1990.

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, which began with an earthquake in March 2011 and continues today, is casting a spotlight on nuclear reactors in the United States. At the Dai-Ichi nuclear
power plant, at least one of the pools used for storing spent nuclear fuel—indeed, the pool holding the largest amount of spent fuel—has leaked and remains vulnerable. Because U.S. nuclear plants also
use cooling pools for storing spent fuel, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) formed a task force to assess what happened at the stricken facility and identify lessons for the U.S. nuclear industry. In a July 2011 report, the NRC placed upgrading the safety of storage pools at reactor stations high on its list of recommendations.

But history and scientific evidence suggest that although useful, improving pool safety will not be enough. Efforts are needed to store more spent fuel in dry form, in structures called casks that are less susceptible to damage from industrial accidents, natural disasters, or even terrorist attacks. Fortunately, money is already available to pay for this step, a situation almost unheard of in today’s harsh economic climate. Now it is up to the federal government to develop policies to make this happen, for the safety of the nuclear electric industry and the nation. There is no time to wait. It is estimated that spent-fuel storage pools at U.S. reactors, which are already jammed, will hit maximum capacity by 2015.

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Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, is a former senior policy advisor at the Department of Energy.