Fukushima meltdown could be template for nuclear terrorism, study says
The Fukushima meltdown showed how some nuclear plants are vulnerable to cooling-system failures. That might be of interest to Al Qaeda, which considered attacking US nuclear facilities after 9/11, a new study says.
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Pools of circulating water that cool spent fuel could be an attractive a target, the report adds. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the spent-fuel pool belonging to its No. 4 reactor lost power to its cooling system, resulting in the water boiling off and a spent-fuel fire that released radiation directly into the atmosphere.Skip to next paragraph
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At least 28 reactors in the US have designs similar to the Fukushima plant, where spent-fuel pools are suspended near the ceiling of the reactor building. Such pools, when loaded with spent fuel, are safe as long as their cooling systems are working.
But US spent-fuel pools tend to be far more heavily loaded than those in Japan. 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 a recent report by the non-partisan Institute for Policy Studies.
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," that study said.
The rods are usually kept in tightly packed racks submerged in pool water, which requires a steady flow of electricity to keep water circulating and the rods 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.
Even so, the US does not mandate backup power for cooling systems to the pools, nuclear power watchdogs have noted in several recent studies.
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.
Now comes the Harvard study bolstering the terrorist threat to spent fuel.
"Even if terrorists fail to cause a wide-scale dispersal of radioactive material," the report says, "their sabotage efforts may still provoke widespread terror, shut down a reactor, and cause significant economic and socio-political damage.”
[Editor's note: The original version incorrectly attributed a piece of information found in a report by the Institute for Policy Studies to a report by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs]