If you live in North America and you’ve been thinking the Fukushima nuclear tragedy is confined to Japan, a former U.S. Department of Energy official had very bad news for you at a Washington, D.C. press conference yesterday. And, no, the news wasn’t about how much of Fukushima’s radiation is now reaching you, or might ultimately. That’s another matter.
Robert Alvarez, one the world’s foremost authorities on radiation hazards, warned that 34 of the 103 nuclear reactors in the U.S. store their spent fuel in pools several stories above ground, just like the ill-fated Fukushima reactors.
The difference, stressed Alvarez, is that, unlike the Japanese reactors, the U.S reactors now house four times more spent fuel than they were designed for. That’s because, going on half a century into the nuclear energy age, the U.S. has yet to adopt a long-term storage solution for its nuclear waste.
The situation poses a deadly risk, Alvarez and his colleagues warned in a 2003 study. The controversial American reactors each have 5-10 times more long-lived radioactivity in their vulnerable storage pools than they do in the reactors’ cores, the study found. Heightening that hazard, the waste pools are located outside the reactors’ containment domes.
Damage causing loss of cooling water in such storage pools can result in burning nuclear waste being released directly into the environment. This is the tragedy now unfolding in Fukushima.
Such nightmarish release of radiation is what turned some thousand square kilometers around Chernobyl, an area equal to about half the size of New Jersey, into a wasteland, said Alvarez.
Estimates of when Chernobyl will again be safe for human habitation range from 300 to 1,000 years.
As if the threat of 34 Chernobyls in the continental U.S. weren’t bad enough, a recent MSNBC story sited deeply unsettling U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission risk estimates of catastrophic failure due to earthquakes.
“Each year, at the typical nuclear reactor in the U.S., there’s a 1 in 74,176 chance that the core could be damaged by an earthquake, exposing the public to radiation,” read the story. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42103936/ns/world_news-asia-pacific/). “No tsunami required. That’s 10 times more likely than you winning $10,000 by buying a ticket in the Powerball multistate lottery, where the chance is 1 in 723,145.”
Even worse are the odds of disaster (one in 10,000) at the Indian Point nuclear plant, just 24 miles north of New York City.
What caused this grave state of affairs, charges Alvarez, is that Congress gutted the regulatory ability of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, much as its gutting of the Securities Exchange Commission led to the global economic meltdown of 2008.
When Alvarez and his colleagues released their report on spent fuel hazards, the NRC tried to have it suppressed, he said. Congress ordered a National Academy of Sciences review. That review validated the report’s conclusions in 2004. Seven years later, however, there is no evidence that NRC has taken corrective action, says Alvarez.
Regarding the dangers to Japan, the U.S., and the rest of the world resulting from the Fukushima catastrophe, a physician with special expertise in radiation and a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told press conference attendees that at the moment there’s little that can be done but for the world to hold its breath and wait to see.
One reason no informed estimate of Fukushima-related radiation risks can be made at present is because no actual data has yet been released. U.S. and Japanese military flights have apparently taken actual radiation measurements at the site, but their findings have not been made public.
Yesterday, a consortium of citizen groups sent President Obama a letter requesting release of actual radiation measurements taken at Fukushima.
Go here to listen to yesterday’s Fukushima emergency press conference: http://www.ips-dc.org/pressroom/japan-nuclear-emergency-presser-3-18.
Go here for the Alvarez team’s report on spent nuclear fuel hazards: http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/reducing_the_hazards_from_stored_spent_power-reactor_fuel_in_the_united_states
Go here for the letter requesting President Obama to release Fukushima radiation data: http://foe.org/sites/default/files/NuclearTransparencyLtr3.18.11.pdf.