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Scientists say nuclear fuel pools around the country pose safety and health risks via The Center for Public Integrity

The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe could have been far worse, it turns out, and experts say neither the nuclear industry nor its regulators are doing enough to prevent a calamitous nuclear fuel fire in America

Ninety-six aboveground, aquamarine pools around the country that hold the nuclear industry’s spent reactor fuel may not be as safe as U.S. regulators and the nuclear industry have publicly asserted, a study released May 20 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine warned.

Citing a little-noticed study by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Academies said that if an accident or an act of terrorism at a densely-filled pool caused a leak that drains the water away from the rods, a cataclysmic release of long-lasting radiation could force the extended evacuation of nearly 3.5 million people from territory larger than the state of New Jersey. It could also cause thousands of cancer deaths from excess radiation exposure, and as much as $700 billion dollars in costs to the national economy.

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The Academies’ conclusions were based in part on its view that – even though the Fukushima disaster forced the hasty evacuation of 470,000 people and the ensuing cleanup costs could reach $93 billion – a more dire economic and health catastrophe was only narrowly averted, largely due to good luck.

In particular, according to the report, one of the spent fuel pools at the reactor site lost a significant portion of its coolant due to evaporation, when pumps bringing in a regular supply of new coolant lost power. If its highly radioactive rods had been exposed, their heat and exposure to oxygen could have caused a fire, giving radioactive materials and gases from inside and around the rods a way to escape into the environment.  The ensuing radioactive contamination might have forced long-term relocation of the population of Tokyo, 177 miles to the south.

“Just like leaving a tea kettle on the stove,” Shepherd said, as the water surrounding the fuel rods boiled off without replenishment and the level steadily dropped.

While the reactor rescue operation was still under way, Japanese scientists prepared an internal report on the possibility of Tokyo’s contamination for the Japanese prime minister. But its existence “was initially kept secret because of the frightening nature of the scenarios it described,” the Academies’ report said. “The content [of the report] was so shocking that we decided to treat it as if it didn’t exist,” a senior Japanese government official told the Japan Times eight months later.

But the fuel rod pool in question was fortunately located next to another pool containing water that surrounded a reactor core, and by chance a leak developed between them in the earthquake, allowing extra coolant to spill into the most vulnerable fuel rod pool. It kept the rods just below the water’s surface.

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In its own analysis, the NRC has concluded dry-cask storage of spent fuel rods – which is technically feasible after the rods cool for a year or more in the pools — is only negligibly safer than leaving waste in pools for decades, as is routinely done.

But the Academies’ study focused on other factors that the NRC chose not to consider, such as the chance that terrorists might strike a spent-fuel pool or an insider might sabotage a pool. The report said predicting human behavior poses challenges, but more effort should have been made to understand the consequences of a deliberate attack.

Panel member Frank von Hippel, an emeritus professor and senior research physicist at Princeton University, said that in its “deeply-flawed” cost-benefit analysis, the NRC also excluded consideration of the consequences of property contamination more than 50 miles from a radiation release, even though a broader release is clearly possible. He said the NRC further used outmoded statistical estimates for the value of a human life, did not incorporate potential tourism losses after an accident, or consider the potential costs to the economy if a major accident forced multiple reactors to be shut down.

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