A U.S. Nuclear Accident Could Be a Lot Worse than Japan

George Washington's picture

 

I noted last week:

 

 

Reuters reported yesterday:

 

U.S. regulators privately have expressed doubts that some of the nation's nuclear power plants are prepared for a Fukushima-scale disaster, undercutting their public confidence since Japan's nuclear crisis began, documents released by an independent safety watchdog group show.

 

 

Internal Nuclear Regulatory Commission e-mails and memos obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists questioned the adequacy of the back-up plans to keep reactor cooling systems running if off-site power were lost for an extended period.

 

 

Those concerns seem to contrast with the confidence U.S. regulators and industry officials have publicly expressed after the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl began to unfold on March 11, UCS officials said on Wednesday.

 

 

"While the NRC and the nuclear industry have been reassuring Americans that there is nothing to worry about -- that we can do a better job dealing with a nuclear disaster like the one that just happened in Japan -- it turns out that privately NRC senior analysts are not so sure," said Edwin Lyman, a UCS nuclear expert.

 

 

I pointed out last month:

 

 

As MSNBC notes, there are 23 virtually-identical reactors in the U.S. to the leaking Fukushima reactors.

 

 

As McClatchy notes, American reactors hold much more spent fuel than the Japanese reactors (the amount of radioactive fuel at Fukushima - in turn - dwarfs Chernobyl):

 

U.S. nuclear plants use the same sort of pools to cool spent nuclear-fuel rods as the ones now in danger of spewing radiation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, only the U.S. pools hold much more nuclear material.

 

***

 

The Japanese plant's pools are far from capacity, but still contain an enormous amount of radioactivity, Lyman said. A typical U.S. nuclear plant would have about 10 times as much fuel in its pools, he said.

 

And yet the nuclear industry and American government are poo-poohing the danger. As McClatchy notes:

 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reaffirmed its position that the U.S. pools are operated safely.

 

The Nation notes:

 

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.

 

Similarly, Pro Publica points out:

 

Opponents of nuclear power have warned for years that if these pools drain, either by accident or terrorist attack, it could lead to a fire and a catastrophic release of radiation.

 

 

***

 

 

The nuclear industry says fears about the storage pools at U.S. plants are overblown because the pools are protected and, even if fuel is exposed to the air, the chance of a fire is incredibly small.

 

 

***

 

 

 

“People should be very concerned because the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] has acknowledged that spent fuel pools that are not located inside the containment have the potential to cause catastrophic accidents,” said Diane Curran, a lawyer who has represented environmental groups and governments in challenges to fuel storage plans.

 

 

“These are not high-probability accidents,” Curran said, “but we have seen how low-probability accidents can happen.”

 

 

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress asked the National Academies to study the vulnerability of spent fuel to a terrorist attack.

 

 

The resulting 2005 report, “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage ,” concluded that “an attack which partially or completely drains a plant's spent fuel pool might be capable of starting a high-temperature fire that could release large quantities of radioactive material into the environment.”

 

 

The report found that the vulnerability of the spent fuel to fire depends on how old it is and how it is stored. As the fuel ages, it cools, so it becomes less susceptible to a fire.

 

 

“The industry standard is that fuel that is older than five years can be dry-stored,” said Kevin Crowley, director of the nuclear and radiation board for the National Research Council, part of National Academies.

 

 

The report recommended that the nuclear industry take steps to decrease the vulnerability of the storage pools to fire. Some of those steps are classified, Crowley said. But he said others, like making sure there were fire hoses or spray systems above the pools, were pretty simple.

 

 

 

***

 

 

The nuclear industry disagreed with the national academy about the vulnerability of the spent fuel to a fire.

 

 

So a Fukushima-type disaster was inevitable ... and will be inevitable in the U.S. as well, unless steps are taken to make the plants safer.

 

I reported last month:

 

In 1982, the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs received a secret report received from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called "Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences 2".

 

 

***

 

 

In that report and other reports by the NRC in the 1980s, it was estimated that there was a 50% chance of a nuclear meltdown within the next 20 years which would be so large that it would contaminate an area the size of the State of Pennsylvania, which would result in huge numbers of a fatalities, and which would cause damage in the hundreds of billions of dollars (in 1980s dollars).

 

Similarly, renowned physicist Michio Kaku told Democracy Now today:

 

The American people have not been given the full truth, because, for example, right north of New York City, roughly 30 miles north of where we are right now, we have the Indian Point nuclear power plant, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has now admitted that of all the reactors prone to earthquakes, the one right next to New York City is number one on that list. And the government itself, back in 1980, estimated that property damage would be on the order of about $200 billion in case of an accident, in 1980 dollars [more than $500 billion in today's dollars], at the Indian Point nuclear power station.

 

 

In 1996, Time Magazine quoted George Galatis - former Senior Engineer at Northeast Utilities company in Connecticut - as warning:

 

Because the Federal Government has never created a storage site for high-level radioactive waste, fuel pools in nuclear plants across the country have become de facto nuclear dumps—with many filled nearly to capacity. The pools weren’t designed for this purpose, and risk is involved: the rods must be submerged at all times. A cooling system must dissipate the intense heat they give off. If the system failed, the pool could boil, turning the plant into a lethal sauna with clouds of reactive steam. And if earthquake, human error or mechanical failure drained the pool, the result could be catastrophic: a meltdown of multiple cores taking place outside of the reactor containment, releasing massive amounts of radiation and rendering hundreds of square miles uninhabitable.


 

 

Indeed, Galatis now argues that the U.S. could suffer a much worse nuclear accident than Japan:

 

Right now the true risk to public health and safety associated with the generation of nuclear power is intentionally kept from the public. Because of misplaced trust, these enormous risks are in effect being enforced on the public without their knowledge or consent. People need to know about and agree to accept the real risks involved so that when a scenario like Fukushima—or worse—arises here, there is already a degree of acceptance. Without this formal public acceptance, nuclear power will never be cost effective nor will it survive.

[T]he risks associated with nuclear power and in particular, the storage of spent fuel in the spent fuel pools, have not been properly addressed by the nuclear industry and its Federal regulator. Without appropriate action, the nuclear tragedy in Japan may very well be reproduced on American soil at some point in the near future.

 

 

***

 

 

One of the big surprises the public has become aware of is that the spent fuel pools in the Japanese nuclear power plants do not have a containment structure over them to prevent the escape of radioactive contaminants. People today can not believe how the design of a plant could so grossly compromise the health and safety of the general public. Yet this is one of the key safety issues we have right here in the USA as well: 23 American reactors are based on the same ‘Mark I’ blueprint as the Fukushima plant, and all 33 US Boiling Water Reactors share the same spent fuel pool design.

 

 

***

 

 

These pools were originally designed to hold less than half of a reactor’s core of fuel as a normal mode of operation, and that on a temporary basis. They were never intended to serve as a long-term nuclear fuel storage facility. However, today most nuclear plants in the USA contain more than five cores, which is at least ten times their original design for normal operation, and at least 2-3 times more than the amount held at the Fukushima unit 4 spent fuel pool. This means the US power plants, especially those with elevated spent fuel pools, are potential ticking timebombs, waiting for earth quakes, human error, acts of malice, or terrorism to cause a radiological crisis.

 

 

***

 

 

After the 9/11 attacks here in the USA, a Congressional Commission was formed and one of the issues was how vulnerable the nuclear plants were to terrorist attacks, especially airplane attacks. In response, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a public proclamation that the plants are safe because of the concrete dome protecting the ‘reactor’. Their initial answer was entirely beside the question, and the issue of the spent-fuel pools remained unanswered, in my opinion intentionally.

 

 

***

 

 

In my experience, official sources of information are often confusing and of little transparency. Given the enormous risks involved, it is vitally important for everyone to do their own research and become more informed. Fortunately today, thanks to the Internet, there are sufficient resources available.

 

And earthquakes, terrorist attacks and error aren't the only risks to U.S. nuclear reactors (and see this).

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Urban Redneck's picture

And what is downwind of any west coast nuclear accident? (hint: amber waves of ipods)  Dudley wasn't wrong, he was early.  Reuters staff seem to be suffering from either a right-coast left-coast bias or right-brain left-brain malfunction.

Dorotheo Arango's picture

the US army has already solved its nuclear fuel stockage problem: tomahawk missiles and laser bombs, anti tank munitions. all made of depleted uranium. 200 tomahawks on Libya, to 'free' the libyans free the US army of 400 kg of nuclear waste each i.e. 80 tons of uranium. Serbia was also a nice dumping site.

verum quod lies's picture

Nuclear release would be worse here?  What - you are saying that somebody might actually die? Are you saying that if Nancy Pelosi was exposed to radiation she might grow a brain or if John Boehner was exposed he might grow a backbone? Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi is suffering from mercury poisoning due to eating fish contamined with mercury. After three mile island, Lyndon Larouche had a bumper sticker - Latest Score Harrisburg 0 Chappaquiddick 1, and sarcastically suggested that fitting Ted Kennedy's car with life jackets would have saved more lives than trying to improve the safety of nuclear plants. 

Seer's picture

Stupid fucking party hack...

verum quod lies's picture

Ban Nuclear Power Plants - Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark

boiltherich's picture

Nuclear release would be worse here?  Well DUH!  It would be HERE!  Just kidding.  But really, the Humboldt Bay power plant in Eureka California is within 20 miles of five separate fault lines, and it sits on a tidal flood plane.  It was either the first or second commercial reactor commissioned in the USA and has for many years now been fossil fired with the spent fuel rods cooling in a pool, some are so old that they precede good data and accounting of just what is there and what is missing, and a good deal of it is unaccounted for.  They have no plan for dealing with this stuff so it just sits in it's pool decade after decade waiting to bring death and misery which not if but when.

In 1981 or 2, we had a huge earthquake that knocked down a new modern freeway overpass on highway 101 just south of the plant, the nearest bridge to the plant on the southbound freeway.  One day the Cascadia fault stretching from Vancouver Island to Mendocino County will let go with a 9.0 or better quake, it is now officially overdue, and the warning time from quake to tsunami will be in minutes not hours.  When it does you can expect that nuclear waste to go into the environment and get to god knows where. 

Nuclear is in our future, but the designs need to change, mini nuke plants like the ones Hyperion are about to start selling seem to be perfect, but the plants we now have are just not worth the risks.  Anything that has to be cooled for thousands of years in order not to render millions of acres of land radioactive is just not acceptable.  You cannot plan for all eventualities, you cannot guarantee the integrity of the plants, and the consequences of failure are as we have seen in Ukraine and now Japan are so economically costly that they render any economic as well as moral use of these plants unthinkable.  Close them all and redesign to small plants that even if they malfunction cannot melt down or contaminate vast regions.

Stuck on Zero's picture

Why is it that every government agency created to protect the public soon perverts into an agency to protect the Wall Street Corps?

sundown333's picture

Here is a good supplement to keep on hand.

 

http://metaorganics.com/Ageless-Living.html

 

MSimon's picture

GW,

I know most Americans are allergic to numbahs. Are you one of them?

 

MSimon's picture

The Japanese plant's pools are far from capacity, but still contain an enormous amount of radioactivity, Lyman said. A typical U.S. nuclear plant would have about 10 times as much fuel in its pools, he said.

Two thousand tons per pool in the US?

Total spent fuel in the US in 2010 is estimated at 35,000 tons:

http://www.princeton.edu/sgs/publications/sgs/pdf/11_1Alvarez.pdf

Divide that by 100 reactors and you get 350 tons per reactor (average). About double Fukushima.

proLiberty's picture

We have got to restart the Yucca Mountain project pronto and/or move as much spent fuel out of on-site wet storage and into dry casks.   The status quo is a particularly dangerous form of political correctness.  We used to have the luxury of entertaining fools and useful idiots.  No more!

 

Seer's picture

Question: how much available storage space do you have at your place of residence?  If you are an average person it's quite likely it's maxed out.

GROWTH = MORE.  How much MORE of this shit will we have to store?  And, what about the transportation of it?

ALL SYSTEMS FAIL, and BIG SYSTEMS FAIL IN BIG WAYS  As Dirty Harry would put it: Do you feel lucky, punk?

BTW - Have you ever met anyone who proclaims themselves as anti-liberty?

MSimon's picture

As far as the half life craziness - stuff with half lives above 50 years is not considered  dangerous - as long as you don't ingest it.

Remember - the longer the half life the lower the rate of radiation emission. Or to put it in math terms - (1/(half life))* constant = emission rate. Not counting daughter products.

MSimon's picture

I think you are off on the amount of fuel in the Fukushima site. The number given by Japanesese sources is 1,800+ tons. If we say 100 tons per reactor (a bit high) that accounts for 600 tons. 1,200 tons in 6 pools = 200 tons per pool (average).

New_Meat's picture

GW- if you are powered by the U.S. grid, then, if you object to the nuclear contribution, you should shut down your computers and house for 20% of the day.  If you object to coal, there is another 50% of the day.   If you advocate solar, then you should shut down at night.  You could always broadcast on wind, with all of the hot air, but the efficiency would leave you out of breath and, well...

- Ned

The Heart's picture

Yes, future generations.

Will they be above-grounders, or under-grounders?

As far as "a lot worse" is concerned...we have to remember there has been a new bar set:

Latest Home Video of Tsunami and Earthquake:

http://www.japannewstoday.com/?p=3073

Everybodys All American's picture

I'm no expert on the fuel. But, it seems to me the supposed spent fuel still should or could be useful in creating "energy" if it is still able to become re-critical.

Also,how quickly do we go through these rods and how much of this spent fuel are we accumulating in these US reactors?

What a colossal mess we are leaving for future generations.

Seer's picture

A classic example of govt interference in "free trade."  If not for govts nuclear energy wouldn't even exist, or if it ever did (and without any regulations) it would only exist for a very short time (until it wiped out a shitload of people).

Everybodys All American's picture

Keep up the good work on this George. I finally found a subject we agree on without a doubt. I remember arguing with a friend of mine who was intending to go into the nuclear industry. My concerns back then nearly 40 years ago were that there was no safe place for the spent fuel. My friend who again became a nuclear scientist agreed but said he felt we would in the future figure out ways to deal with the fuel. Guess what forty years later and I am right and there has not been a new invention or a way to deal with the spent fuel rods. How sad.

New_Meat's picture

please don't confuse "no safe place" with "no place that Harry Reid will permit." - Ned

{we can play with "safe" if you wish"

awakened's picture

correction:

5.2 days for XE 133 and 16 million years for 129XE

But who is monitoring xe129? Anyone?

awakened's picture

XE 133: half-life of 16 MILLION YEARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was trying to decide if I want a garden this year. Covering a garden to keep the rain off it is so much work. And then you have to water it. Already told my kids to stay in and keep the grandkids out of the rain. And if caught out in the rain to make sure they have raincoats and hats and hoodies on and to keep their coverings outside on the porch. i guess we'll have to destoy whatever gets rained on now.

George, could you tell us a little bit more about this unatural substance XE 133?

XE 133, from wickipedia

"Naturally occurring xenon (Xe) is made of nine stable isotopes. (134Xe and 136Xe are predicted to undergo double beta decay, but this has never been observed, so they are considered to be stable.)[1][2] Xenon has the second highest number of stable isotopes. Only tin, with 10 stable isotopes, has more.[3] Beyond these stable forms, there are over 40 unstable isotopes that have been studied. 129Xe is produced by beta decay of 129I (half-life: 16 million years); 131mXe, 133Xe, 133mXe, and 135Xe are some of the fission products of both 235U and 239Pu, and therefore used as indicators of nuclear explosions."

 

My thanks to the Dutch for giving us the NILU and eurad maps.

medicalstudent's picture

3rd dimension. meet 2nd.

 

depleted uranium.

ug

bugs_'s picture

We need to stop standing in the way of Yuka Mountain.  Its got to go someplace.  As Fukushima shows, just stacking it up next to (OR ON TOP OF) a reactor is their "temporary" solution while everyone argues about Yuka.  Lets git er dun.  The fukushima scenario shows that the china syndrome isn't the worst case.

gina distrusts gov's picture

"We need to stop standing in the way of Yuka Mountain"

take a good look at that area 's geology it is in the basin / range it is a geological active area the volcanic risk is NOT 0 particularly over a 16K  year time frame it is a easy to dig area because in is volcanic tuft  and as the  Chaitén Volcano in South America demonstrated  when a 10,000 year  "DEAD" volcano came to life with no warning.  The Nevada area is  not as stable as should be required for the long term storage of something that dangerous. 

if the storage area had been dug in the much more stable  North American craton  it might be a bit safer but more expensive  as the oldest rock is no where as easy to  excavate. to try to make a long term storage area  in a volcanically active area is just stupid but cheaper, so profit being more important than people's lives in the future  do it on the cheep and fuck the children in the future that's the american way

Seer's picture

Let's just stick it up yer ass, because, well, it seems that you're a big enough ass to hold ALL of it!

But, of course, you say, your ass is only so big.  Well, there you have it, the crux of your piece of shit thinking, finite storage!  When something's full it's full.

Fucking morons like you will be sure to make mankind extinct. Never can think beyond one fucking level... thinking in two dimensions.

verum quod lies's picture

Why don't we just stick it between your ears - I seems a shame to let all that empty space go to waste.

geekgrrl's picture

After the plants are shutdown, yes, there needs to be a place to put all this material...

But first, the US nuclear plants should be going into shutdown.

Bicycle Repairman's picture

No way man.  What happened in Japan happened to Japanese.  We're Americans.

USA NUMBER#1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Stuck on Zero's picture

Can't happen here.  We have FEMA.

knukles's picture

Goddamned right.  We're Americuns, an history don't apply to us.
We can do anything bigger, larger, more...

Er...
bigger?

larger.... ?

 

worseer..... ???

max2205's picture

GW, think anyone will do anything about it?!

I doubt it

Monday1929's picture

Do you have any ide how much back-up generators cost??? Plus the cost of hooking them up. And do you know how much gasoline/diesel fuel costs now? It could cost as much as 100,000 dollars PER PLANT to set this up. And there is probably only a one in ten chance this type of scenario MIGHT occur.

In 50,000 years of human existence, how many melt-downs have occured?

How about this- we tell all the people assuring us that everything is o.k. that if there is any type of accident, we will come and kill them? That very day.

Hot Piece of Bass's picture

I don't really understand the jist of this post but... 1 in 10 is a pretty big chance!

If we measure from the first nuclear electricity generating plant in 1954 to the present day... and we include Fukushima as being pretty terrible and likely to meltdown... that's 2 level 7's in about 57 years.  So your odds are roughly 1 meltdown every 28.5 years. 

 

And just for fun... if the average level 7 leaves a 50mi radius area toasted and unihabitable.

pi r*r= Area    

3.14 * (50*50) = 7,850 sq miles.

So every 28 years or so an area of about 8,000 sq miles will become a wasteland.

On the bright side... I estimate that the odds of humans developing super powers just shot up a good deal.

 

Mr pain's picture

My concern is a solar storm as big as the one in 1859 comes and zaps all the electronics.  There will be no power for any pumps anywhere in the world and they all melt down since they can’t be cooled.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1359136/Global-Katrina-Biggest-solar-storm-cause-power-cuts-MONTHS.html

geekgrrl's picture

Wow. You're absolutely right.

Can you imagine thousands of reactors all around the world with completely destroyed electrical and electronic systems? No pumps, no batteries, no power to be commanded at will? No control? It will only be hours to melt-down.

The 1859 storm will happen again, and all we'll be hearing is: "Nobody could have predicted an event like this happening."

Just like the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan, these events have happened before, and will happen again.

It seems to me that the only logical conclusion is to shut down all the plants and figure out a way to decomission so many nuke sites at once.

knukles's picture

Yeeeaaaauuhhh....
Oh my Gah-odd.
And my White iPhone won't work.

What-ev-er

(rolling of eyes) 

vast-dom's picture

this shit is beyond-scary! 

vast-dom's picture

this shit is beyond-scary! 

sharkbait's picture

Your headline killed it for me.  '....could be a lot worse...'.  duh!  Of course it could be worse, it could be less sever also.

You aren't dealing with the pabulum craving, teachers union educated, incapable of critical thinking masses here. 

They read headlines like yours and cower, thinking minds read them and laugh.

If you have an agenda to sell, you need to market it in a way that attracts your desired audience, insulting their intelligence doesn't work.

Try something like "How a nuke accident in the US could be worse".

 

I would of read that.

BigJim's picture

You "would of" read that?

Ruffcut's picture

Keep on, keepin on, GW. So you are an alarmist.

With the amount of alarming bullshit we see everyday, how could we not be.

knukles's picture

And why worry about anything like this anyhow, because Apple is gonna start selling the White iPhone.

(wimpering noises)

knukles's picture

Why would anybody have doubts?

michigan independant's picture

Angry Mom's will take care of it the next election cycle. Obama says nuclear is a non issue. GW I enjoy the reports please continue since it restores my faith in information one soul at a time. Indeed thanks for gathering the information even if something could be done to store this monster.

Herman Strandschnecke's picture

...and yet TPTB do seem to care really, as they do over asbestos and fly tippin' or not recycling in an orderly fashion.

Maybe they will start to play up the nuclear risks to avoid panic and to have us not worry about C02 which is a vastly more difficult bi-product to effectively deal with?