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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dangers From Depleted Atomic Fuel

Air Date: Week of

Highlighted in red is the Fukushima Prefecture, site of Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis. (Wikimedia Commons)

Japan’s storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel contain more longterm radioactive material than the internal reactor. Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies tells host Bruce Gellerman that in the U.S., spent fuel pools contain four times more radioactive material than they were designed to hold.


GELLERMAN: The energy for the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant came from three thousand radioactive fuel rods. The containment vessels of some of the reactors seem to be breached, but apparently the larger danger is from the spent fuel rods. While they’re less intensely radioactive than those still in the reactors, there are 12 thousand used fuel rods stored in seven unprotected deep pools above the containment. Nuclear power expert Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.

ALVAREZ: Typically, a spent fuel pool will contain ten to twenty times more long-lived radioactivity than the core. The short-lived materials have decayed away and the spent fuel, of course, accumulates over time. And so it’s much more of a danger and hazard in terms of the materials that will stick around for quite a while.

Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies (Institute for Policy Studies)

GELLERMAN: The spent fuel pools are basically unprotected. They’re just in a building - the secondary containment.

ALVAREZ: Right. The explosion that destroyed the unit three clearly shows that the pool is now exposed to the open sky and billowing out steam, which means that it’s getting hot enough to boil. These pools, by the way, are several stories above ground - they’re right next to the reactor tops. So if the water starts to drain, by the time the water reaches a level that’s about five or six feet above the top of the spent fuel, the radiation dose rates become life-threatening on the site.

GELLERMAN: So Bob Alvarez, what could be the potential long-term effects on the land and on the people in this area around plants in Japan?

ALVAREZ: Well the water would tend to dilute and disperse the radioactive materials when it’s deposited on the land. The long-lived radioactive materials, particularly caesium-137, which is a really bad actor in this one, can get volatilized and then released to the environment. It has a half-life of about 30 years, which means…the rule of thumb - it takes about ten half-lives for this material to decay down to levels that are presumed to be safe.

So a large release of caesium-137 could render a very large area of land uninhabitable, perhaps for hundreds of years. What is also of concern here in the United States is that we have 34 similar reactors of the design - Fukushima - that have these elevated pools. And unlike the pools in Japan, our Nuclear Regulatory Commission, over decades, have permitted the reactor operators to densely compact the spent fuel in these pools.

They were originally designed only about one fourth of what they’re holding right now. And so if something were to happen to cause the water to drain, then the consequences would be much, much more severe.

GELLERMAN: So the problem is that we’ve got all this spent fuel and no place to put it.

ALVAREZ: Well I think that this is a problem that can be mitigated. I mean, it isn’t one of these intractable problems. I mean, what we recommended in 2003 in our study is that the pools be used only to store fuel for five years so that they can cool off, and then after that, they should be moved into dry, hardened storage casts - it could be buried in hillsides or put in thick concrete buildings if you’re concerned about airplane crashes and other things.

This is something that Germany did 25 years ago - it isn’t rocket science. The technology is on the shelf to do this. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was adamantly opposed to our recommendation, and the reactor operators were opposed to this because it would cost some additional money.

GELLERMAN: So we’ve got 34 of these types of reactors with these elevated pools - now why would you want to put the pool in the attic and the diesel, the backup diesel power, in the basement? It seems like you’d want it opposite.

This diagram shows the inside of a nuclear facility in Japan. The reactor is in the center. In the upper left corner is the spent fuel pool. The diagram shows a helicopter dropping water on the pool to keep the fuel rods covered with water. (Photo: Hayakuneko)

ALVAREZ: Well, first of all, the pools in Japan and the pools in the United States do not require backup diesel generators to keep the water circulating. They are not considered sufficiently hazardous enough to warrant this additional layer of protection. The reason why this design was picked is that it was done as a matter of convenience to allow the spent fuel to be removed from the reactor and then just moved over into the pool, without having to take it any great distance.

GELLERMAN: So did I hear you correctly? There’s no backup power generators to the spent fuel pools?

ALVAREZ: At all the reactors in the United States, it’s not required. If you lose off-site power, at a US commercial nuclear power station, there are no backup diesel generators to provide circulation to cool the pools. We reported all this in 2003 in our paper. And the National Academy also weighed in and made it pretty clear that this was, you know, a significant issue, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just disregarded it because I think they’re just caught up in a dance of co-dependence with the regulator.

I think their relationship with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is worse than that of the Securities and Exchange Commission with Wall Street.

Highlighted in red is the Fukushima Prefecture, site of Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis. (Wikimedia Commons)

GELLLERMAN: So I’m downwind from Vermont Yankee, I’m upwind from Pilgrim Yankee…um, should I be worried?

ALVAREZ: I think you should be worried. And I think that it’s time that we stop this kind of nonsense of assuming it can’t happen here. I think that this accident should be a wake-up call. The big lesson that we’re learning about this, relative to nuclear power and other technologies as well, is that nature has a way of greatly exceeding the best expectations of our scientists.

GELLERMAN: Well Robert Alvarez, thank you very much - really appreciate it.

ALVAREZ: You’re welcome.

GELLERMAN: Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. For the latest on the nuclear crisis in Japan, go to our website, L-O-E dot org.



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