Four atomic reactors in Fukushima, Japan, seem to be in partial meltdown. One of them, reactor No. 2, seems to have ruptured. The situation is spinning out of control as radiation levels spike. The US Navy has pulled back its aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, after seventeen of its crew were exposed to radiation while flying sixty miles off the Japanese coast.
But despite three major explosions—at reactor No. 1, then No. 3, then No. 2—the Fukushima containment vessels seem to be holding. (Chernobyl lacked that precaution, having only a flimsy cement containment shell that collapsed, allowing the massive release of radioactive material.)
But there is another, potentially far more dangerous problem: the spent fuel rod pools that sit right next door to the reactors. The storage pools are packed with radioactive uranium, rise several stories above ground and are always close to the reactor, thus facilitating easy transfer of the fuel rods. Their name—especially “spent” and “pool”—conveys calm dissipation. But spent fuel rod pools are actually highly radioactive, very unstable, extremely dangerous and, compared with reactors, not well supported, contained or looked over.
The spent rods give off considerable amounts of “decay heat” and thus must be submerged in constantly circulating water. Expose them to air for a day or two, and they begin to combust, giving off large amounts of radioactive cesium-137, a very toxic, long-lasting, aggressively penetrating radioactive element with a half-life of thirty years. When cesium-137 it enters the environment, it essentially acts like potassium and is taken up by plants and animals that use potassium. (For the record, that includes you.)
The explosions at reactors No. 1 and No. 3 blew apart the respective containment buildings but left the vessels intact. Or so we think. But what did the blasts do to the nearby spent fuel rod pools? On Monday night the news in Japan confirmed that the pool next to reactor No. 3 lost its roof.
“I’ve been studying overhead photographs of Fukushima. It is very disturbing,” said Robert Alvarez, formerly a senior policy adviser at the Energy Department under Clinton and now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
“The steel wall of the pool seems to show damage. All the surrounding equipment, including the two cranes, has been destroyed. There is smoke coming from reactor No. 3, and steam coming from the spent fuel pool next to it. That indicates that the water in the pool is boiling. And that means the spent fuel rods are getting hot and could start burning.”
If the spent rods start to burn, huge amounts of radioactive material would be released into the atmosphere and would disperse across the Northern Hemisphere.
Unlike the reactors, spent fuel pools are not—repeat not—housed in any sort of hardened or sealed containment structures. Rather, the fuel rods are packed tightly together in pools of water that are often several stories above ground.
“With damaged [fuel rod] pools, we are talking about things that were never considered a credible threat,” said Alvarez.
Aileen Mioko Smith, director of Green Action Kyoto, met Fukushima plant and government officials in August 2010. “At the plant they seemed to dismiss our concerns about spent fuel pools,” said Mioko Smith. “At the prefecture, they were very worried but had no plan for how to deal with it.”
Remarkably, that is the norm—both in Japan and in the United States. Spent fuel pools at Fukushima are not equipped with backup water-circulation systems or backup generators for the water-circulation system they do have.
The exact same design flaw is in place at Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant of the same GE design as the Fukushima reactors. At Fukushima each reactor has between 60 and 83 tons of spent fuel rods stored next to them. Vermont Yankee has a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods on site.
Nuclear safety activists in the United States have long known of these problems and have sought repeatedly to have them addressed. At least get backup generators for the pools, they implored. But at every turn the industry has pushed back, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has consistently ruled in favor of plant owners over local communities.
After 9/11 the issue of spent fuel rods again had momentary traction. Numerous citizen groups petitioned and pressured the NRC for enhanced protections of the pools. But the NRC deemed “the possibility of a terrorist attack…speculative and simply too far removed from the natural or expected consequences of agency action.” So nothing was done—not even the provision of backup water-circulation systems or emergency power-generation systems.
In fact, just one day before the earthquake hit Japan, the NRC recommended a twenty-year renewal for Vermont Yankee’s license. Now, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin is fighting to close the plant. He told Democracy Now! that his state has "an aging nuclear plant owned by Entergy Louisiana, a company we found we cannot trust." Shumlin noted that the plant had been scheduled to be closed in 2012.
Short of closing plants, there is a fairly reliable solution to the problem of spent fuel rods. It is called “dry cask storage.” Germany adopted it twenty-five years ago. Instead of storing huge amounts of spent fuel in pools with only roofs over them, small amounts of spent fuel rods are surrounded with inert gas inside large steel casks. These casks are quite stable and secure. At Vermont Yankee one of them was mistakenly dropped a yard or more when a crane malfunctioned—and the cask was fine.
But there is a problem with dry cask storage: it costs money. The track record of the atomic energy industry in the United States—less so in Japan—is to spend as little money as possible and extend the life of old plants for as long as possible, no matter the risks.
Meanwhile, in Japan, they wait for news. Are the pools stable? Or leaking and boiling?