Robert Alvarez has just published his latest analysis of the Spent Fuel Ponds from nuclear reactors in the United States and Japan and concluded that the risk of an accidental release of a catastrophic level of radioactivity from such ponds is greater in the United States than at the Japanese Fukusime Daiichi plant. I first spotted the publication of the report in an article at the Huffington Post (first link), but for those of you with issues about HuffPo, you can link the full report at the second link. Sorry but my link connector in the Diary editor is bonko so I have to put them crudely below.
As Japan's nuclear crisis continues, this report details the nature and extent of radioactive spent fuel stored at nuclear reactors across the United States and how it can be made less hazardous. U.S. reactors have generated about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel, of which 75 percent is stored in pools, according to Nuclear Energy Institute data.
Spent fuel rods give off about 1 million rems (10,00Sv)of radiation per hour at a distance of one foot — enough radiation to kill people in a matter of seconds. There are more than 30 million such rods in U.S. spent fuel pools.
No other nation has generated this much radioactivity from either nuclear power or nuclear weapons production. Nearly 40 percent of the radioactivity in U.S. spent fuel is cesium-137 (4.5 billion curies) — roughly 20 times more than released from all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. U.S. spent pools hold about 15-30 times more cesium-137 than the Chernobyl accident released.
From the first Huffington Post summary of Alvarez's 90 page report:
Spent fuel at many U.S. plants in facilities that were never designed for long-term storage exceeds that stored at the four damaged units of the Japanese plant. For example, the spent fuel in a pool at Vermont Yankee plant exceeds the combined total in the pools at the four troubled reactors at the Fukushima site. There are more than 30 million spent fuel rods in these storage pools in the U.S., the "largest concentration of radioactivity on the planet," according to author Robert Alvarez. The institute recommends moving most of the spent fuel from pools to dry air-cooled steel casks, which is a safer storage method.
And, from the Summary of the Alvarez report:
For instance, the pool at the Vermont Yankee reactor, a BWR Mark I, currently holds nearly three times the amount of spent fuel stored at Dai-Ichi's crippled Unit 4 reactor. The Vermont Yankee reactor also holds about seven percent more radioactivity than the combined total in the pools at the four troubled reactors at the Fukushima site.
Even though they contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, U.S. spent nuclear fuel pools are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements. Some are made from materials commonly used to house big-box stores and car dealerships.
The United States has 31 boiling water reactors (BWR) with pools elevated several stories above ground, similar to those at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station. As in Japan, all spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants do not have steel-lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool, if offsite power is lost. The 69 Pressurized
Water (PWR) reactors operating in the U.S. do not have elevated pools, and also lack proper containment and several have large cavities beneath them which could exacerbate leakage.
For nearly 30 years, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) waste-storage requirements have remained contingent on the opening of a permanent waste repository that has yet to materialize. Now that the Obama administration has cancelled plans to build a permanent, deep disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, spent fuel at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors will continue to accumulate and are likely remain onsite for decades to come.
According to Energy Department data:
• The spent fuel stored at 28 reactor sites have between 200-450 million curies
The April 26, 1986 nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl in Ukraine illustrated the damage cesium-137 can wreak. Nearly 200,000 residents from 187 settlements were permanently evacuated because of contamination by cesium-137. The total area of this radiation-control zone is huge. At more than 6,000 square miles, it is equal to about two-thirds the area of the State of New Jersey. During the following decade, the population of this area declined by almost half because of migration to areas of lower contamination.
I co-authored a report in 2003 that explained how a spent fuel pool fire in the United States could render an area uninhabitable that would be as much as 60 times larger than that created by the Chernobyl accident.
If this were to happen at one of the 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.
Over the past 30 years, there have been at least 66 incidents at U.S. reactors in which there was a significant loss of spent fuel water. Ten have occurred since the September 11 terrorist attacks, after which the government pledged that it would reinforce nuclear safety measures. Over several decades, significant corrosion has occurred of the barriers that prevent a nuclear chain reaction in a spent fuel pool — some to the point
where they can no longer be credited with preventing a nuclear chain reaction. For example, in June 2010, the NRC fined Florida Power and Light $70,000 for failing to report that it had been exceeding its spent fuel pool criticality safety margin for five years at the Turkey Point reactor near Miami. Because of NRC’s dependency on the industry self-reporting problems, it failed to find out that there was extensive deterioration of neutron absorbers in the Turkey Point pools and lengthy delays in having them replaced.
Worst Case Scenario For Fuel Rod Fire Detailed, in NRC Report.
In a seperate report I've presented previously William J. Broad and Hiroko Tabuchi, of The New York Times, reports that
A 1997 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island described a worst-case disaster from uncovered spent fuel in a reactor cooling pool. It estimated 100 quick deaths would occur within a range of 500 miles and 138,000 eventual deaths.Read more at: http://www.ndtv.com/...
The study also found that land over 2,170 miles would be contaminated and damages would hit $546 billion.
David A Loch Baum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientist, continues in the same article,
If any of the spent fuel rods in the pools do indeed catch fire, nuclear experts say, the high heat would loft the radiation in clouds that would spread the radioactivity.
"It's worse than a meltdown," said David A. Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists who worked as an instructor on the kinds of General Electric reactors used in Japan. "The reactor is inside thick walls, and the spent fuel of Reactors 1 and 3 is out in the open."
And this is a link to the abstract of the warning Alvarez et.al. presented to the NRC, in 2003.
Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States
Robert Alvarez, Jan Beyea, Klaus Janberg, Jungmin Kang,
Ed Lyman, Allison Macfarlane, Gordon Thompson,
Frank N. von Hippel
Because of the unavailability of off-site storage for spent power-reactor fuel, the NRC has allowed high-density storage of spent fuel in pools originally designed to hold much smaller inventories. As a result, virtually all U.S. spent-fuel pools have been re-racked to hold spent-fuel assemblies at densities that approach those in reactor cores.
In order to prevent the spent fuel from going critical, the fuel assemblies are partitioned off from each other in metal boxes whose walls contain neutron-absorbing boron. It has been known for more than two decades that, in case of a loss of water in the pool, convective air cooling would be relatively ineffective in such a “dense-packed” pool. Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly to temperatures at which the zircaloy fuel cladding could catch fire and the fuel’s volatile fission products,
And, later in that NRC report:
On average, spent fuel ponds hold five-to-ten times more long-lived radioactivity than a reactor core. Particularly worrisome is the large amount of cesium-137 in fuel ponds, which contain anywhere from 20 to 50 million curies of this dangerous radioactive isotope. With a half-life of 30 years, cesium-137 gives off highly penetrating radiation and is absorbed in the food chain as if it were potassium.
In comparison, the 1986 Chernobyl accident released about 40 percent of the reactor core's 6 million curies. A 1997 report for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by Brookhaven National Laboratory also found that a severe pool fire could render about 188 square miles uninhabitable, cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities, and cost $59 billion in damage. A single spent fuel pond holds more cesium-137 than was deposited by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Northern Hemisphere combined. Earthquakes and acts of malice are considered to be the primary events that can cause a major loss of pool water.
In 2003, my colleagues and I published a study that indicated if a spent fuel pool were drained in the United States, a major release of cesium-137 from a pool fire could render an area uninhabitable greater than created by the Chernobyl accident. We recommended that spent fuel older than five years, about 75 percent of what's in U.S. spent fuel pools, be placed in dry hardened casks -- something Germany did 25 years ago. The NRC challenged our recommendation, which prompted Congress to request a review of this controversy by the National Academy of Sciences. In 2004, the Academy reported that a "partially or completely drained a spent fuel pool could lead to a propagating zirconium cladding fire and release large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment."
Given what's happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, it's time for a serious review of what our nuclear safety authorities consider to be improbable, especially when it comes to reactors operating in earthquake zones.
Even if you only read the summary of this new 90 page report by Alvarez, it will scare the stew, right out of you.
I encourage everyone to support Representative Ed Markey's intiative to get full top to bottom hearings on the the US Spent Fuel issues, as well as lessons learned from the ongoing Fukushima accident.