The effects of Fukushima are still being felt on U.S. nuclear policy. Today, The New York Times published an article about the movement to transfer spent radioactive fuel rods from cooling pools into dry casks for long-term storage.
Back in May, a report released by the Institute for Policy Studies (with support from POGO) highlighted the danger of the current U.S. system for storing spent radioactive fuel rods and argued for a shift to dry casks.
Dry casks are sealed concrete silos filled with gas that sit above ground. The good: dry casks are made of much sturdier materials and have no moving parts, so unlike cooling pools, are not as vulnerable to fires or malfunctions. The casks at the Fukushima plant were not damaged after the earthquake and tsunami—the cooling pools, on the other hand, didn't fare as well. From the IPS / POGO report:
It is now clear that at least one spent fuel pool lost enough water to expose highly radioactive material, which then led to a hydrogen explosion and a spent fuel fire that destroyed the reactor building of the Unit 4.
The risks presented by continuing to store spent fuel in cooling pools, however, are significant. The New York Times article and the IPS / POGO report both mention that U.S. spent fuel rods are stored in more crowded conditions than the Fukushima plant, which can increase the risk of a fire. But our report went further by saying that the extra equipment used to compensate for this crowding, which is dangerous on its own, can actually create a greater risk of fire if there is a malfunction. From a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report cited in our research:
The extra equipment restricts water and air circulation, making the pools more vulnerable to systemic failures. If the equipment collapses or fails, as might occur during a terrorist attack, for example, air and water flow to exposed fuel assemblies would be obstructed, causing a fire.
A National Academy of Sciences report said that if a fire like that occurred, it could "create thermal plumes that could potentially transport radioactive aerosols hundreds of miles downwind." Very bad news.
The big problem with moving spent fuel rods to dry casks is the cost, which the NYT estimates to be about $2.5 million per cask. The NYT says the cost to move all of the spent fuel in the U.S. would be $7 billion, which is on the high end of the $3 to $7 billion estimate from the POGO and IPS report. Ultimately, we conclude that the cost is worth it:
With a price tag of as much as $7 billion, the cost of fixing America's nuclear vulnerabilities may sound high, especially given the heated budget debate occurring in Washington. But the price of doing too little is incalculable.
The good news is that there could be a way to pay for the dry cask transfer: The Nuclear Waste Policy Act has generated $25.4 billion in revenue to use for a nuclear waste repository, and only $7.3 billion has been spent as of 2010, according to the POGO and IPS report. Right now, this money can't be used for on-site storage, like dry casks, even though there is enough money to easily cover the $7 billion cost of casks for every reactor in the country.
If you are worried about thermal plumes reaching your house, or otherwise want to get involved in this issue, make sure to go over to our action alert to urge your Member of Congress to move spent fuel into a safe and permanent storage facility.
For related info, check out POGO coverage of nuclear power plant safety and security.
Andre Francisco is a POGO Associate.