Japanese Crisis Highlights U.S. Atomic Waste Safety Problem

Japan's nuclear disaster has thrown a spotlight on an atomic security and safety problem in the United States -- the massive quantities of radioactive spent fuel housed across the country in cooling pools similar to those at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday (see GSN, March 18).

The United States has 71,862 tons of nuclear waste that are temporarily stored in more than 30 states, according to data collected by AP. Some 75 percent of the radioactive material in cooling ponds located beyond thick containment walls that are intended to keep reactor emissions from atomic energy plants from entering the environment (see related GSN story, today).

Though U.S. nuclear reactors are surrounded by thick concrete walls that are designed to absorb the impact of a crashed airplane, the cooling ponds do not have such strong protections against unforeseen natural disasters or terrorist attacks. The still-hot atomic waste -- consisting mostly of uranium but also plutonium and some other materials-- could be dispersed around the surrounding area if the water is drained away from the cooling pools (see GSN, Jan. 5).

The remaining 25 percent of the country's atomic waste from nuclear utilities has been placed into dry cask containers, where regulators project the material can be kept for roughly 100 years. The casks do not require electricity as they are kept cool by circulating air.

One variety of dry cask houses atomic waste within a stainless steel container which is placed into an "overpack" shell comprised of carbon steel, a layer of thick concrete and an additional layer of carbon steel. The entire cask system weighs roughly 150,000 pounds and is 20 feet in height, according to cask manufacturer Holtec International.

Company spokeswoman Joy Russell said the cask was developed to absorb the impact of a F-16 fighter jet and to withstand the ensuing aircraft fuel combustion.

A 2004 National Academy of Sciences analysis concluded no cask was completely indestructible but that a breach would be likely to result in a low radioactive emissions release.

"If you attacked a fuel cask and managed to put a hole in it, anything that came out, the consequences would be very local," NAS nuclear and radiation studies director Kevin Crowley said (Fahey/Henry, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, March 22).

Lawmakers in Washington are using the Japanese nuclear crisis to draw attention to the domestic problem of finding a permanent solution for storing the country's atomic waste, the New York Times reported (see GSN, March 14).

The Obama administration in 2010 formally axed a plan to build a permanent massive underground storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, much to the ire of some in Congress who represent states with significant quantiles of atomic waste. An alternative plan has not been proffered.

"You have an unholy mess on your hands," Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) said to Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko at a House hearing last week. "The stuff keeps piling up, and you’ve doubled the amount that you can store in a single pool, but that’s running out."

Nuclear plant cooling ponds in the United States hold even higher quantities of spent fuel than those at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, experts point out.

Should construction on the Yucca site ever begin, it would take a minimum of 10 years before the facility can begin to accept atomic waste (Matthew Wald, New York Times, March 23).

The amount of U.S. nuclear waste today is also already greater than the planned storage capacity at Yucca Mountain, AP reported (Fahey/Henry, Associated Press).

March 24, 2011
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Japan's nuclear disaster has thrown a spotlight on an atomic security and safety problem in the United States -- the massive quantities of radioactive spent fuel housed across the country in cooling pools similar to those at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday (see GSN, March 18).

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