By Gwen L. DuBois
12:00 PM EDT, March 11, 2012
The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan one year ago today precipitated the most serious nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. A worst-case scenario contemplated the voluntary evacuation of Tokyo, as the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission feared a meltdown of the spent fuel pools sitting atop the reactors more than of the reactors themselves, according to an aide to then-prime minister Naoto Kan. Spent fuel pools, unlike nuclear reactors, are enclosed in no primary containment building. The one atop Reactor 4, which also has the "hottest fuel," sits directly exposed to the elements after an explosion blew the roof off the building March 15.
Our nuclear plants are no better designed than those in Japan. Twenty-three are Mark 1 boiling water reactors, identical to Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1-5. This includes Peach Bottom, 36 miles from Baltimore in York County, Pa.; and Vermont Yankee, notorious for pipes leaking radioactive tritium, which was relicensed for 20 years on March 10, 2011, over the objection of Vermonters.
Nor are our plants immune from natural or manmade disasters. Nearly half of the 104 reactors in the U.S. are near major fault lines. In August, a 5.8 earthquake 11 miles from Virginia's North Anna nuclear power plant, which is 70 miles from Washington D.C., rattled nerves in Baltimore and far beyond. The quake caused twice the amount of ground movement for which North Anna was designed. One backup generator failed. The presence of a geological fault below the reactors was known and covered up by the owners and regulators at the time of construction.
Twenty-seven reactors have not made adequate provisions for earthquake protection, including Indian Point, the nuclear reactor within 25 miles of New York City. Forty-seven reactors do not meet Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements for fire prevention. Fort Calhoun in Nebraska has remained off-line since a major flood in June. A recent report by the NRC on nuclear power safety in the U.S. supposedly redacted a section that dealt with the precarious state of dams in this country. (Our neighbor plant at Peach Bottom uses the Conowingo Dam as its water source).
Any of these events could cause a loss of power, overheating of nuclear fuel, and a partial or full meltdown. Just as in Japan, an event in the spent fuel pool would be far worse than one in a reactor. Unlike the reactor core, which sits in a steel vessel surrounded by a primary steel and concrete container, the spent fuel pool is surrounded only by the easily breached secondary structure, which nuclear expert Robert Alvarez describes as a building "no more secure than a car dealership."
U.S. pools are generally more densely packed than in Japan. Vermont Yankee's pool contains two to three times the amount of spent fuel as Fukushima Daiichi's Reactor 4, described above. The crowding increases the risk of initiating a nuclear chain reaction. The NRC does not require backup generators or batteries. Overheating could cause an explosion breaching the secondary structure, carrying radioactive material hundreds of miles. Mr. Alvarez estimated a meltdown of spent fuel in the Indian Point pool, which has three times the radioactivity of four Fukushima spent fuel pools, would kill 5,600 people, do $461 billion in damage and render a large area uninhabitable. (Calvert Cliffs, by the way, has generated the 10th-largest amount of long-lived radioactivity in the country — among the largest concentrations on the planet.)
A National Academy of Science report recommended that fuel be moved to casks once sufficiently cooled. This has two inherent advantages over pool storage: "(1) It is a passive system that relies on natural air circulation for cooling; and (2) it divides the inventory of that spent fuel among a large number of discrete, robust containers." Critics of nuclear power agree: After five years, fuel from ponds should be moved into hardened onsite storage as the best option until the unlikely time a permanent repository is found.
The U.S. has 65,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, which we leave to our children in perpetuity. "You don't build a house without a toilet" said Jitsuro Terashima, president of the Japan Research Institute and a member of a panel advising the Japanese government. This anniversary is a good time to rethink how we should view our energy needs: consume less, manufacture products that are maximally energy efficient, promote renewables like wind and solar — and don't make more nuclear waste until we safely dispose of what we have made.
Dr. Gwen L. DuBois is a member of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility and a founding member of the Crabshell Alliance. Her email is email@example.com.
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