A catastrophe far worse than Fukushima lurks in the United States, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission used faulty data to estimate potentially ruinous risks of a nuclear-waste fire — one which could occur at any one of dozens of sites across the country.
“Published by researchers from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists,” the latter organization reports, “the article [in the May 26 issue of the journal Science] argues that NRC inaction leaves the public at high risk from fires in spent-nuclear-fuel cooling pools at reactor sites.
“The pools — water-filled basins that store and cool used radioactive fuel rods — are so densely packed with nuclear waste that a fire could release enough radioactive material to contaminate an area twice the size of New Jersey. On average, radioactivity from such an accident could force approximately 8 million people to relocate and result in $2 trillion in damages.”
Researchers warn darkly the NRC’s recalcitrant refusal to enact crucial safety measures — including the use of dry casks to house contaminated waste — could have cataclysmic consequences for millions of people living near reactor sites.
And the NRC — a government entity unironically tasked with ensuring “the safe use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while protecting people and the environment” — managed to shirk civic, environmental, and, arguably, ethical safety precautions by flatly dismissing viable potentialities.
“Using a biased regulatory analysis,” the Union of Concerned Scientists continues, “the agency excluded the possibility of an act of terrorism as well as the potential for damage from a fire beyond 50 miles of a plant. Failing to account for these and other factors led the NRC to significantly underestimate the destruction such a disaster could cause.”
Unsurprisingly — and nonetheless a damning testimony to egregiously skewed priorities — this inexcusable negligence through omission comes down to penny-pinching anent the NRC’s slavish devotion to the nuclear power industry.
“The NRC has been pressured by the nuclear industry, directly and through Congress, to low-ball the potential consequences of a fire because of concerns that increased costs could result in shutting down more nuclear power plants,” paper co-author Frank von Hippel lamented, as quoted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Von Hippel, a senior research physicist at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security (SGS) at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, sharply admonished the public not to ignore these potential nuclear holocausts-in-waiting, adding,
“Unfortunately, if there is no public outcry about this dangerous situation, the NRC will continue to bend to the industry’s wishes.”
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and study co-author, noted the NRC has fecklessly permitted plant owners and operators “to pack spent fuel into cooling pools at much higher densities than they were originally designed to handle. This has greatly increased the risk to the public should a large earthquake or terrorist attack breach the liner of a spent fuel pool, causing the pool to rapidly lose its cooling water.
“In such a scenario the spent fuel could heat up and catch fire within hours, releasing a large fraction of its highly radioactive contents. Since spent fuel pools are not enclosed in high-strength, leak-tight containment buildings, unlike the reactors themselves, much of this radioactive material could be readily discharged into the environment.”
Sufficient supply of cooling water is, of course, imperative to prevent truly calamitous consequences from a meltdown, as happened in 2011 at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, when electronic systems operating reactor cooling systems failed.
But even that disaster would have been exponentially worse, had cooling water slipped low enough to expose reactor cores to the air — which very nearly occurred in Unit 4.
Fukushima experienced core meltdowns in three of six reactors, birthing a pernicious nuclear morass which scientists now estimate could take at least another four decades to resolve. A lesson for the world, the Fukushima disaster also forced the entire industry to examine safety programs and regulations with a fine-toothed comb.
Tellingly, the NRC indeed deliberated mandating several indispensable reforms — such as requiring plant owners to transfer waste from spent fuel pools to dry casks after five years, or prohibiting packing cooling pools as densely as in the past — but, in cost-benefit analysis, decided against any of the proposals.
In fact, researchers point out that in the NRC analysis, the impotent government agency also surmised “there would be no consequences from radioactive contamination beyond 50 miles of a fire. It also assumed that all contaminated areas could be effectively cleaned up within a year. Both of these assumptions are inconsistent with experience after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.”
Lyman excoriated the NRC for its refusal to mandate relatively modest improvements — around $50 million per reactor pool — as well as the industry for rebuffing any suggestion of voluntary compliance with reforms found necessary in the study of the Fukushima fiasco.
“The consequences of a fire could be truly disastrous at densely packed pools, which typically contains much more cesium-137 — a long-lived, extremely hazardous radioactive isotope — than is present in reactor cores,” Lyman wrote.
“My Princeton University co-authors have calculated, using sophisticated computer models, that a spent fuel pool fire at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania could heavily contaminate over 30,000 square miles with long-lived radioactivity and require the long-term relocation of nearly 20 million people, for average weather conditions. Depending on the wind direction and other factors, the plume could reach anywhere from Maine to Georgia.
“My co-authors estimate the financial impact on the American economy of such contamination could reach $2 trillion: ten times the estimated $200 billion in damages caused by the release of radioactivity from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant.”
Worse, many nuclear power plants in the United States have not aged well, some stand in disrepair or in desperate need of improvements to bring them in line with advancements made over decades, while others — like perpetually-troubled Indian Point Energy Center, thirty miles from the heart of New York City — must simply be shut down.
Von Hippel, Lyman, and Michael Schoeppner, a former postdoctoral researcher at Princeton’s SGS and third co-author of the paper, portend utterly disastrous consequences from the NRC’s astoundingly toothless — if not eminently reckless — stance with the nuclear power industry.
“In far too many instances, the NRC has used flawed analysis to justify inaction, leaving millions of Americans at risk of a radiological release that could contaminate their homes and destroy their livelihoods,” Lyman opined.
“It is time for the NRC to employ sound science and common-sense policy judgments in its decisionmaking process.”