May 6, 2012
After visiting Fukushima, Senator Ron Wyden warned that the situation was worse than reported … andurged Japan to accept international help to stabilize dangerous spent fuel pools.
Fuel pool number 4 is, indeed, the top short-term threat facing humanity.
Anti-nuclear physician Dr. Helen Caldicott says that if fuel pool 4 collapses, she will evacuate her family from Boston and move them to the Southern Hemisphere. This is an especially dramatic statement given that the West Coast is much more directly in the path of Fukushima radiation than the East Coast.
And nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen recently said (at 25:00):
There’s more cesium in that [Unit 4] fuel pool than in all 800 nuclear bombs exploded above ground…
But of course it would happen all at once.
It would certainly destroy Japan as a functioning country…
Move south of the equator if that ever happened, I think that’s probably the lesson there.
This week, Wyden said that the spent fuel is a national security threat to the U.S.:
AlterNet asked Sen. Wyden if he considers the spent fuel at Fukushima Daiichi a national security threat.
In a statement released by his office, Wyden replied, “The radiation caused by the failure of the spent fuel pools in the event of another earthquake could reach the West Coast within days. That absolutely makes the safe containment and protection of this spent fuel a security issue for the United States.”
[Robert Alvarez – a nuclear expert and a former special assistant to the United States Secretary of Energy] agrees, saying, “My major concern is that this effort to get that spent fuel out of there is not something you should be doing casually and taking your time on.”
Yet Tepco’s current plans are to hold the majority of this spent fuel onsite for years in the same elevated, uncontained storage pools, only transferring some of the fuel into more secure, hardened dry casks when the common pool reaches capacity.
Government Agencies Underplaying Risk … So No One Has to Do Anything Different
Why are American nuclear authorities ignoring this threat?
Nuclear waste experts … charge that the NRC is letting this threat [of the Fukushima fuel pools] fester because acknowledging it would call into question safety at dozens of identically designed nuclear power plants around the U.S., which contain exceedingly higher volumes of spent fuel in similar elevated pools outside of reinforced containment.
In an interview with AlterNet, Alvarez … said that the Japanese government, Tepco and the U.S. NRC are reluctant to say anything publicly about the spent fuel threat because “there is a tendency to want to provide reassurance that everything is fine.”
“The U.S. government right now is engaged in its own kabuki theatre to protect the U.S. industry from the real costs of the lessons at Fukushima,” Gunter said. “The NRC and its champions in the White House and on Capitol Hill are looking to obfuscate the real threats and the necessary policy changes to address the risk.”
There are 31 G.E. Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors (BRWs) in the U.S., the type used at Fukushima. All of these reactors, which comprise just under a third of all nuclear reactors in the U.S., store their spent fuel in elevated pools located outside the primary, or reinforced, containment that protects the reactor core. Thus, the outside structure, the building ostensibly protecting the storage pools, is much weaker, in most cases about as sturdy, experts describe in interviews with AlterNet, as a structure one would find housing a car dealership or a Wal-Mart.
Remember that American nuclear power plants are storing much more nuclear fuel rods in highly-vulnerable pools than even Fukushima.
The NRC and Japanese claim that fuel pool 4 has been stabilized, but:
Nuclear experts, including Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president who coordinated projects at 70 U.S. nuclear power plants, and warned days after the disaster at Fukushima last year of a “Chernobyl on steroids” if the spent fuel pools were to ignite, strongly disagreed with this assessment.
“It is true that in May and June the floor of the U4 SFP [spent fuel pool] was ‘reinforced,’ but not as strong as it was originally,” Gundersen noted in an email to AlterNet. “The entire building however has not been reinforced and is damaged by the explosion in both 4 and 3. So structurally U4 is not as strong as its original design required.”
Alvarez said that even if the unit 4 structure has been tentatively stabilized, it doesn’t change the fact “it sits in a structurally damaged building, is about 100 feet above the ground and is exposed to the atmosphere, in a high-consequence earthquake zone.”
He also said that the urgency of the situation is underscored by the ongoing seismic activity around northeast Japan, in which 13 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 to 5.7 haveoccurred off the northeast coast of Honshu between April 14 and April 17.
“This has been the norm since 3/11/11 and larger quakes are expected closer to the power plant,” Alvarez added.
(Last year’s big earthquake made a huge earthquake close to Fukushima more likely.)
Boils Down to Money
Of course, it all boils down to money … just like every other crisis the world faces today.
Nuclear power can be safe, or it can be cheap … but it can’t be both. For example, we’ve previouslynoted:
Apologists for the nuclear power industry pretend there are no better alternatives, so we just have to suck it up and suffer through the Japanese nuclear crisis.
But this is wholly illogical. The truth is that we can store spent fuel rods in dry cask storage, which is much safer than the spent fuel rod pools used in Fukushima and many American reactors.
As the Nation pointed out:
Short of closing plants, there is a fairly reliable solution to the problem of spent fuel rods. It is called “dry cask storage.”
But there is a problem with dry cask storage: it costs money….
Experts say the only near-term answer to better protect our nation’s existing spent nuclear fuel is dry cask storage. But there’s one catch: the nuclear industry doesn’t want to incur the expense, which is about $1 million per cask.
“So now they’re stuck,” said Alvarez, “The NRC has made this policy decision, which the industry is very violently opposed to changing because it saves them a ton of money. And if they have to go to dry hardened storage onsite, they’re going to have to fork over several hundred million dollars per reactor to do this.”
He also pointed out that the contents of the nine dry casks at the Fukushima Daiichi site were undamaged by the disaster.
“Nobody paid much attention to that fact,” Alvarez said. “I’ve never seen anybody at Tepco or anyone [at the NRC or in the nuclear industry] saying, ‘Well, thank god for the dry casks. They were untouched.’ They don’t say a word about it.”
Get it? The Japanese and American governments are playing Russian roulette with the fuel pools at Fukushima to save nuclear companies from having to spend a couple of million dollars to safely store spent fuel in dry casks.