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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.

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The National Academy of Sciences in 2004 cited the pools as vulnerable to terrorist attack and fires. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said the pools are safe, the Fukushima reactors' core meltdowns and spent-fuel pool fire prompted a new study of the possible impact of an earthquake or electrical blackout on US sites.

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Spent-fuel pools need electricity to pump water to cool the fuel rods, as well as to maintain a high water level to prevent radiation from escaping. At present, however, there is no federal requirement for back-up power supplies for spent-fuel pools, to ensure the circulation of water continues in a blackout situation, the report notes.

Dangerous spent fuel pool reactor sites listed in the report include:

  • Two reactors at Indian Point – about 25 miles from New York City – have spent fuel in their pools containing about three times more radioactivity than the combined total of all four spent-fuel pools at the damaged Fukushima reactors. A spent-fuel fire could cause $461 billion in damage and thousands of deaths from disease, the report says.
  • At Diablo Canyon, near Los Angeles, nuclear reactors have material with about 2.7 times more radioactivity in their spent-fuel pools than Fukushima’s combined total.
  • Similarly, reactors at Turkey Point, about 65 miles from Miami, have material with 2.5 times more radioactivity than Fukushima’s combined total.
  • The venerable Vermont Yankee reactor, which is involved in a battle to win a new re-licensing that would let it operate another 20 years, has a design similar to the Fukushima plant. It holds seven percent more total radioactivity than the four Daiichi reactors combined – and nearly three times the amount of spent fuel that was stored in at Fukushima’s Unit 4 reactor, which caught fire.

The alternative: Yucca Mountain and dry cask storage

With the Yucca Mountain site closed by President Obama, there is no long-term storage available – a problem now being studied by a presidential blue-ribbon commission. But any long-term storage solution could take decades.

In the meantime, the study suggests an interim solution would be to remove spent fuel older than five years – now cool enough to be removed from water – and place it in above-ground "dry casks" that would use passive air cooling. That project would require 10 years and cost of $3 billion to $7 billion, the report acknowledges. But while the expense would "add a marginal increase to the retail price of nuclear-generated electricity of between 0.4 to 0.8 percent," the report says, it would make the reactor sites safer.

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