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Expert Cautions that 30 Million Spent Nuclear Fuel Rods Are Unsafely Stored in United States, Could Cause Fukushima-like Disaster
May 24, 2011
WASHINGTON DC – A new report released today details the risk of nuclear catastrophe from spent nuclear fuel. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) report, "Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage,” released with support from the Project on Government Oversight, indicates high risks of radioactive contamination or even nuclear chain reactions or explosions due to the unsafe storage of spent nuclear fuel.
Report author Robert Alvarez discussed these risks in a press conference call today. An interactive map created by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, with new data from the IPS report, makes it easy to determine the threat of nuclear catastrophe for specific regions, including sites in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Atlanta, and nuclear storage facilities across the United States.
“Unprotected and crowded spent nuclear fuel pools pose an unacceptable threat to the public,” said report author Robert Alvarez, senior scholar for nuclear policy at the Institute for Policy Studies. “Dry cask storage is a much safer alternative to pools. Some people say they are too expensive, but considering the extreme risks, the cost of doing nothing is incalculable.”
The report provides data for the first time on the amount of radioactivity in spent nuclear fuel at all individual reactor sites in the United States. Several sites are storing far more radioactive waste in vulnerable pools than the U.S. nuclear weapons program produced over the past 50 years. The report also details serious incidents that have occurred at U.S. reactor and storage sites containing these enormous amounts of radioactivity, and examines dry cask storage as a means of reducing the risks of nuclear waste storage.
More than 30 million highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods are submerged in vulnerable storage pools all over the country. These pools at 51 sites contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet.
- New York. If a spent fuel fire were to happen at one of the two Indian Point nuclear reactors located 25 miles from New York City, it could result in as many as 5,600 cancer deaths and $461 billion in damages. The spent fuel stored at Indian Point has about three times more radioactivity than the combined total in the spent fuel pools at the four troubled Fukushima reactors.
- Los Angeles. The spent fuel at the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors have nearly 2.7 times more radioactivity than the combined total in the spent fuel pools at the four troubled Fukushima reactors.
- Miami. The Turkey Point reactors 65 miles from Miami have 2.5 times more radioactivity than the combined total in the spent fuel pools at the four troubled Fukushima reactors.
- Dallas. The Comanche Peak nuclear station 60 miles southwest of Dallas has spent fuel that contains about 2.3 times more radioactivity than the combined total in the spent fuel pools at the four troubled Fukushima reactors.
- Atlanta. The Vogtle nuclear reactors near Augusta are 147 miles northeast of Atlanta. These reactors have generated 2.5 times more radioactivity than the combined total in the spent fuel pools at the four troubled Fukushima reactors.
Spent nuclear fuel rods are so deadly that a motorcyclist blasting past them at 60 miles per hour at a distance of one foot would be killed from the effects of that fleeting exposure.
If the water drains from a from a spent nuclear fuel pool, it can lead to a catastrophic radioactive fire that spews toxins. Often, spent nuclear fuel rods are kept in tightly-packed racks submerged in pool water, reliant on a continuous flow of electricity to keep them from overheating. The metal tubing that contains spent nuclear fuel is no thicker than a credit card, and can crack or rupture, releasing deadly nuclear material. In extreme cases, poorly-kept pools can cause conditions that lead to a nuclear chain reaction, causing an explosion.
Spent fuel storage pools are vulnerable. Massive land contamination, radiation injuries, and myriad deaths would result from a terrorist attack, earthquake, or even a prolonged electricity blackout — as happened at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor site in Japan following an earthquake and tsunami. Pools need electricity to pump water to cool the rods, as well as to maintain a high water level to diffuse the escape of radiation. Despite these dangers, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) doesn’t require nuclear reactor operators to even have back-up power supplies for these spent-fuel pools to prevent disaster.
Before joining the Institute for Policy Studies, Alvarez served at the Department of Energy (DOE) as Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment from 1993 to 1999, earning two secretarial gold medals. Prior to joining the DOE, he was a Senior Investigator for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.
[Download report, press kit from IPS website]
[Listen to an audio recording of press conference call. Available by 6 PM, May 24.]