by Brad Jacobson
May 4, 2012
Experts say acknowledging
the threat would call into question the safety of dozens
of identically designed nuclear power plants in the U.S.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock/ Sergey150770
More than a year after
the triple meltdown at the
Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the Japanese government, Tokyo
Electric Power Company (Tepco) and the U.S.
Commission (NRC) present similar assurances of the site's current
state: challenges remain but everything is under control. The worst
But nuclear waste experts say the Japanese are literally playing
with fire in the way nuclear spent fuel continues to be stored
onsite, especially in reactor 4, which contains the most irradiated
fuel - 10 times the deadly cesium-137 released during the 1986
Chernobyl nuclear accident.
These experts also charge that the NRC
is letting this threat fester because acknowledging it would call
into question safety at dozens of identically designed nuclear power
plants around the U.S., which contain exceedingly higher volumes of
spent fuel in similar elevated pools outside of reinforced
Reactor 4 -
The Most Imminent Threat
The spent fuel in the hobbled unit 4 at Fukushima Daiichi not only
sits in an elevated pool outside the reactor core's reinforced
containment, in a high-consequence earthquake zone adjacent to the
ocean - just as nearly all the spent fuel at the nuclear site is
stored - but it's also open to the elements because a hydrogen
explosion blew off the roof during the early days of the accident
and sent the building into a list.
Alarmed by the precarious nature of spent fuel storage during his
recent tour of the Fukushima Daiichi site, Sen. Ron Wyden,
D-Oregon, subsequently fired off
Secretary of State Hillary
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko
Japanese ambassador to the U.S.
He implored all parties to work together
and with the international community to address this situation as
swiftly as possible.
A press release issued after his visit said that Wyden, a senior
member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
who is highly experienced with nuclear waste storage issues,
believes the situation is,
"worse than reported," with "spent
fuel rods currently being stored in unsound structures
immediately adjacent to the ocean."
The press release also noted the
structures' high susceptibility to earthquakes and that,
"the only protection from a future
tsunami, Wyden observed, is a small, makeshift sea wall erected
out of bags of rock."
As opposed to units 1-3 at Fukushima
Daiichi, where the meltdowns occurred, unit 4's reactor core, like
units 5 and 6, was not in operation when the earthquake struck last
year. But unlike units 5 and 6, it had recently uploaded highly
radioactive spent fuel into its storage pool before the disaster
Robert Alvarez, a nuclear waste expert and former senior adviser to
the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, has
crunched the numbers pertaining to the spent fuel pool threat based
on information he obtained from sources such as Tepco, the U.S.
Department of Energy, Japanese academic presentations and the
Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the U.S.
organization created by the nuclear power industry in the wake of
the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.
What he found, which has been corroborated by other experts
interviewed by AlterNet, is an astounding amount of vulnerably
stored spent fuel, also known as irradiated fuel, at the Fukushima
His immediate focus is on the fuel
stored in the damaged unit 4's pool, which contains the single
largest inventory of highly radioactive spent fuel of any of the
pools in the damaged reactors.
Alvarez warns that if there is another large earthquake or event
that causes this pool to drain of water, which keeps the fuel rods
from overheating and igniting, it could cause a catastrophic fire
releasing 10 times more cesium-137 than was released at Chernobyl.
That scenario alone would cause an unprecedented spread of
radioactivity, far greater than what occurred last year, depositing
enormous amounts of radioactive materials over thousands of miles
and causing the evacuation of Tokyo.
Nuclear experts noted that other lethal radioactive isotopes would
also be released in such a fire, but that the focus is on cesium-137
because it easily volatilizes and spreads pervasively, as it did
the Chernobyl accident and again after the disaster at
Fukushima Daiichi last year.
With a half-life of 30 years, it gives off penetrating radiation as
it decays and can remain dangerous for hundreds of years.
Once in the environment, it mimics
potassium as it accumulates in the food chain; when it enters the
human body, about 75 percent lodges in muscle tissue, including the
The Threat Not
Just to Japan But to the U.S. and the World
An even more catastrophic worst-case scenario follows that a fire in
the pool at unit 4 could then spread, igniting the irradiated fuel
throughout the nuclear site and releasing an amount of
equaling a doomsday-like load, roughly 85 times more than the
release at Chernobyl.
It's a scenario that would literally threaten Japan's annihilation
and civilization at large, with widespread worldwide environmental
"Japan would suffer the worst, but
it would be a global catastrophe," said Kevin Kamps, nuclear
waste expert at the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear.
"It already is, it already has been,
but it would dwarf what's already happened."
Kamps noted that these pool fires
were the beginning of the worst-case analysis envisioned by the
Japanese government in the early days of the disaster,
as reported by the New York Times
"Not only three reactor meltdowns
but seven pool fires at Fukushima Daiichi," Kamps said. "If the
site had to be abandoned by all workers, then everything would
come loose. The end result of that was the evacuation of Tokyo."
In an interview with AlterNet, Alvarez,
who is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, said
that the Japanese government, Tepco and the U.S. NRC are reluctant
to say anything publicly about the spent fuel threat because,
"there is a tendency to want to
provide reassurance that everything is fine."
He was quick to note,
"The cores are still a problem, make
no mistake, and there will be some very bad things happening if
they don't maintain their temperatures at some sort of stable
level and make sure this stuff doesn't eat down through the
But he said that privately,
"they're probably more scared
shitless about the pools than they are about the cores. They
know they're really risky and dangerous."
AlterNet asked the NRC if it is
concerned about the vulnerability of the spent fuel at Fukushima
Daiichi and what, if anything, it had expressed to the Japanese
government and Tepco on the matter.
"All the available information
continues to show the situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi is stable,
both for the reactors and the spent fuel pools," NRC spokesman
Scott Burnell replied via email.
"The available information indicates
that Spent Fuel Pool #4 has been reinforced."
But nuclear experts, including Arnie
Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president who
coordinated projects at 70 U.S. nuclear power plants, and warned
days after the disaster at Fukushima last year of a "Chernobyl on
steroids" if the spent fuel pools were to ignite, strongly disagreed
with this assessment.
"It is true that in May and June the
floor of the U4 SFP [spent fuel pool] was 'reinforced,' but not
as strong as it was originally," Gundersen noted in an email to
"The entire building however has not
been reinforced and is damaged by the explosion in both 4 and 3.
So structurally U4 is not as strong as its original design
Gundersen, who is chief engineer at the
consulting firm Fairewinds Associates, added that the spent
fuel pool at unit 4,
"remains the single biggest concern
since about the second week of the accident. It can still create
'Chernobyl on steroids.'"
Alvarez said that even if the unit 4
structure has been tentatively stabilized, it doesn't change the
"it sits in a structurally damaged
building, is about 100 feet above the ground and is exposed to
the atmosphere, in a high-consequence earthquake zone."
He also said that the urgency of the
situation is underscored by the ongoing seismic activity around
northeast Japan, in which 13 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 to 5.7
have occurred off the northeast
coast of Honshu between April 14 and April 17.
"This has been the norm since
3/11/11 and larger quakes are expected closer to the power
plant," Alvarez added.
A recent study published in the journal
Solid Earth, which used data from over 6,000 earthquakes, confirms
the expectation of larger quakes in closer proximity to the
Fukushima Daiichi site.
In part, this conclusion is predicated
on the discovery that the earthquake that initiated last year's
disaster caused a seismic fault close to the nuclear plant to
"There are a few active faults in
the nuclear power plant area, and our results show the existence
of similar structural anomalies under both the Iwaki and the
Fukushima Daiichi areas," lead researcher Dapeng Zhao, a
geophysics professor at Japan's Tohoku University, said in a
"Given that a large earthquake
occurred in Iwaki not long ago, we think it is possible for a
similarly strong earthquake to happen in Fukushima."
AlterNet asked Sen. Wyden if he
considers the spent fuel at Fukushima Daiichi a national security
In a statement released by his office, Wyden replied,
"The radiation caused by the failure
of the spent fuel pools in the event of another earthquake could
reach the West Coast within days. That absolutely makes the safe
containment and protection of this spent fuel a security issue
for the United States."
Alvarez agrees, saying,
"My major concern is that this
effort to get that spent fuel out of there is not something you
should be doing casually and taking your time on."
Yet Tepco's current plans are to hold
the majority of this spent fuel onsite for years in the same
elevated, uncontained storage pools, only transferring some of the
fuel into more secure, hardened dry casks when the common pool
For the moment, though, and for the foreseeable future - unless the
international community substantively comes to Japan's aid - Tepco
couldn't transfer the irradiated fuel from the damaged reactor units
into dry cask storage even if it wanted to because the equipment to
do so, such as the crane support infrastructure, was destroyed
during the initial disaster.
"That's kind of shocking," said Paul
Gunter of Beyond Nuclear. "But that's why we're still sitting on
this gamble that there won't be another earthquake that could
topple a very precarious unit 4."
Gunter is concerned that even a minor
earthquake or a subsidence in the earth under unit 4 could cause its
"I think we're all on pins and
needles every day with regard to unit 4," he said. "I mean
there's any number of things that could happen. Nobody really
"Right now its seismic rating should
Alvarez echoed Wyden's letters to the
Japanese ambassador and U.S. officials.
"It really requires a major effort,"
"The United States and other
countries should begin to get involved and try to help the
Japanese government to expedite the removal of that spent fuel
and to put it into dry, hardened storage as soon as possible."
Same Spent Fuel Pool
Designs at Dozens of U.S. Nuclear Sites
So why isn't the NRC and
the Obama administration doing more to shed
light on the extreme vulnerability of these irradiated fuel pools at
Fukushima Daiichi, which threaten not only Japan but the U.S. and
Nuclear waste experts say it would expose the fact that the same
design flaw lies in wait - and has been for decades - at dozens of
U.S. nuclear facilities.
And that's not something the NRC, which
is routinely accused of promoting the nuclear industry rather than
adequately regulating it, nor the pro-nuclear Obama administration,
want to broadcast to the American public.
"The U.S. government right now is
engaged in its own kabuki theatre to protect the U.S. industry
from the real costs of the lessons at Fukushima," Gunter said.
"The NRC and its champions in the
White House and on Capitol Hill are looking to obfuscate the
real threats and the necessary policy changes to address the
There are 31 G.E. Mark I and Mark II
boiling water reactors (BRWs) in the U.S., the type used at
All of these reactors, which comprise
just under a third of all nuclear reactors in the U.S., store their
spent fuel in elevated pools located outside the primary, or
reinforced, containment that protects the reactor core. Thus, the
outside structure, the building ostensibly protecting the storage
pools, is much weaker, in most cases about as sturdy, experts
describe in interviews with AlterNet, as a structure one would find
housing a car dealership or a Wal-Mart.
Not what Americans might expect to find safeguarding nuclear
material that is more highly radioactive than what resides in the
The outer containments surrounding these spent fuel pools in these
U.S. reactors patently fail to meet the NRC's own "defense
in-depth" nuclear safety requirements.
But these reactors don't merely suffer from the same storage design
flaw as those at Fukushima Daiichi.
In the U.S., the nuclear industry has been allowed to store
incredible volumes of spent fuel for decades in high-density pools
that were not only originally designed to retain about one-fourth or
one-fifth of what they now hold but were intended to be temporary
storage facilities. No more than five years. That was before the
idea of reprocessing irradiated fuel in this country failed to gain
a foothold over 30 years ago.
Once that happened, starting in the
early 1980s, the NRC allowed high-density storage in fuel pools on
the false assumption that a high-level waste repository would be
opened by 1998.
But subsequent efforts to gain support
for storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada have also been
More recently, the NRC arbitrarily concluded these pools could store
this spent fuel safely for 120 years.
"Our pools are more crammed to the
gills than the unit 4 pool at Fukushima Daiichi, much more so,"
noted Kamps of Beyond Nuclear.
"It's kind of like a very thick
forest that's waiting for a wildfire. It would take
extraordinary measures to prevent nuclear chain reactions in our
pools because the waste is so closely packed in there."
Experts say the only near-term answer to
better protect our nation's existing spent nuclear fuel is dry cask
But there's one catch: the nuclear
industry doesn't want to incur the expense, which is about $1
million per cask.
"So now they're stuck," said
"The NRC has made this policy decision, which the
industry is very violently opposed to changing because it saves
them a ton of money. And if they have to go to dry hardened
storage onsite, they're going to have to fork over several
hundred million dollars per reactor to do this."
He also pointed out that the contents of
the nine dry casks at the Fukushima Daiichi site were undamaged by
"Nobody paid much attention to that
fact," Alvarez said.
"I've never seen anybody at Tepco or anyone
[at the NRC or in the nuclear industry] saying, 'Well, thank god
for the dry casks. They were untouched.' They don't say a word
The NRC declined to comment directly to
accusations it's reluctant to draw attention to the spent fuel
vulnerability at Fukushima Daiichi because it would bring more
awareness to the dangers of irradiated storage here in the U.S.
But the agency did respond to a question
about what it has done to address the vulnerability of spent nuclear
fuel storage at U.S. nuclear sites with the Mark I and II designs.
"All U.S. spent nuclear fuel is
stored safely and securely, regardless of reactor type," NRC
spokesman Burnell replied in an email. "Every spent fuel pool is
an inherently robust combination of reinforced concrete and
steel, capable of safely withstanding the same type and variety
of severe events that reactors are designed for."
"After 9/11, the NRC required U.S.
nuclear power plants to obtain additional equipment for
maintaining reactor and spent fuel pool safety in the event of
any situation that could disable large areas of the plant.
This 'B5b' equipment and related
procedures include ensuring spent fuel pools have adequate water
levels. The B5b measures are in place at every U.S. plant and
have been inspected multiple times, including shortly after the
accident at Fukushima.
"The NRC continues to conclude the combination of installed
safety equipment and B5b measures can protect the public if
extreme events impact a U.S. nuclear power plant."
But nuclear experts told AlterNet that
the majority of Burnell's response could've been made prior to the
disaster at Fukushima.
In fact, Ed Lyman, senior staff
scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, investigated these
so-called "B5b" safety measures the NRC ordered post-9/11 and
published his findings in a
May 2011 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Directly reflecting Burnell's response to AlterNet, Lyman wrote that
after the Fukushima disaster,
"the NRC and the industry invoked
the mysterious requirements known as 'B5b' as a cure-all for the
kinds of problems that led to the Fukushima crisis.
"Even though the B5b strategies were specifically developed to
cope with fires and explosions, the NRC now argues that they
could be used for any event that causes severe damage to
equipment and infrastructure, including Fukushima-scale
earthquakes and floods."
But contrary to these NRC assurances,
then and now, Lyman's report found B5b requirements inadequate,
containing flaws in safety assumptions that suggest the NRC has not
applied the major lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster.
Additionally, he revealed emails showing
that the NRC's own staff members questioned the plausibility of
these procedures to effectively respond to extreme weather events
like floods, earthquakes and concomitant blackouts.
Burnell sent a follow-up email, noting,
"I also should have mentioned the
NRC issued an order in March to all U.S. plants to install
enhanced spent fuel pool instrumentation, so that plant
operators will have a clearer understanding of SFP status during
a severe event."
This is a curiously roundabout way of
saying that spent fuel pools at U.S. reactors currently have no
built-in instrumentation to gauge radiation, temperature or pressure
Kamps also pointed out that the NRC commissioners voted 4 to 1, with
Chairman Gregory Jaczko in dissent, to not require such
requested safety upgrades to U.S. reactors until the end of 2016.
"Burnell's flippant, false
assurances prove that pool risks, despite being potentially
catastrophic, are largely ignored by not only industry, but even
NRC itself, even in the aftermath of Fukushima."