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Report: 'Unacceptable threat' from spent-fuel pools at US nuclear power plants

Overcrowded spent-fuel pools at US nuclear power plants pose an 'unacceptable threat to the public,' says risk assessor. Much of the leaked radiation from Japan's stricken Fukushima Daiichi came from spent-fuel pools.

By Staff writer / May 25, 2011

Workers replace the fuel rods in a spent-fuel pool at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt., in this 1985 file photo. Entergy Corporation has filed a lawsuit to keep Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant open past 2012. The New Orleans-based company has federal approval to keep the plant running until 2032, but it so far has been unable to secure state approval.

Toby Talbot / AP / File

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A spent-fuel pool fire at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant made headlines after March’s earthquake and tsunami – but the threat may be worse in America.

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Spent nuclear fuel stored in water-filled pools at many nuclear reactor sites in the US far surpasses in volume and radioactivity the threat posed by such material at Fukushima, according to a new study.. The huge hazard could be largely eliminated by moving older materials from the pools into dry cask storage, it said.

“Unprotected and crowded spent nuclear fuel pools pose an unacceptable threat to the public,” said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar for nuclear policy at the nonpartisan Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), as well as a former Department of Energy official in the Clinton Administration, in a statement.

“Dry cask storage is a much safer alternative to pools. Some people say they are too expensive, but considering the extreme risks, the cost of doing nothing is incalculable,” he added.

A new report from the IPS, "Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the US: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage", written by Dr. Alvarez, details for the first time how much radioactivity is contained in spent nuclear fuel at all individual reactor sites in the United States – and the threat they pose.

Today, some 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel is stored at reactor sites around the country, 75 percent of it in US spent-fuel pools, according to data from the Nuclear Energy Institute cited in the report. The other 25 percent is in dry cask storage. Each pool contains spent-fuel rods that give off about 1 million rems of radiation per hour at a distance of one foot – a fatal dose in seconds, the report says. The radiation is kept in check by tons of water continually flowing around the rod assemblages.

Some 30 million such rods are stored in spent-fuel pools at 51 sites around the country that "contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet," the study said. The rods are usually kept in tightly-packed racks submerged in pool water, which requires a steady flow of electricity to keep from overheating. If water drains from a spent-fuel pool, it can lead to a catastrophic fire that emits dangerous radioactive elements like Cesium 137.

Spent-fuel pools: A public threat?

Typically, spent-fuel pools are rectangular, about 40 to 50 feet deep, and made of reinforced concrete walls four to five feet thick, with stainless steel liners. Those without liners may crack or corrode more often, the report says.

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