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Fukushima warning: US has 'utterly failed' to address risk of spent fuel

Nuclear experts told Congress Wednesday that spent-fuel pools at US nuclear power plants are fuller than safety suggests they should be. They say the entire US spent-fuel policy should be overhauled in light of the nuclear crisis at Japan's Fukushima plant.

By Staff writer / March 30, 2011

An aerial view of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is seen in Fukushima Prefecture in this photo taken by Air Photo Service on March 24, 2011.

Air Photo Service/Reuters


The travails of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan are highlighting a key question for the US: Why are America's nuclear power plants allowed to store tons of used but still highly radioactive fuel in pools for as many as 100 years – despite the fact that those pools are far more vulnerable to terrorist attack than the reactors themselves?

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In Japan, a relatively small amount of used-up fuel was sitting in Fukushima's seven spent-fuel pools when disaster occurred. Yet after just days without a cooling system, most water in at least one pool had apparently boiled away, a fire was reported, and radiation levels soared.

By contrast, nuclear utilities in the US have over decades accumulated some 71,862 tons of spent fuel in more than 30 states – the vast majority of it sitting today in pools that are mostly full, according to a recent state-by-state tally by the Associated Press. It's a huge quantity of highly radioactive material equal to a great many Chernobyls' worth of radioactivity, nuclear experts say.

The reason is the lack of a national repository for spent fuel – meaning it must be stored on site – as well as the lack of a coherent nationwide policy, experts told Congress Wednesday.

"From the history of our nuclear power program, storage of spent fuel – between the reactor and the presumed repository – has been an afterthought," said Ernest Moniz, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at a Senate hearing. "It has not really been part of our serious policy discussion about fuel cycle design."

"What we need to do is to stand back and say: What is our whole integrated system?" he added. "We should really start thinking hard about that view."

Warnings years ago


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