By Dr. Jeffrey Patterson
2011 was a scary year for nuclear reactor sites. The summer floods threatened to encroach on reactors in Nebraska and Iowa, an earthquake and a hurricane happened in quick secession to rattle and flood the East Coast, and the continuing events of the Fukushima-Daiichi reactor accident provided harrowing examples of the threats posed to spent fuel at reactor sites. The fate of spent fuel there kept the world on edge for days. It’s worth noting that the amount of fuel in vulnerable storage pools in Japan was far less than what is crowded into pools at many U.S. reactors. As we all learned, a loss of coolant could produce a fuel melt and large radiation releases.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Used reactor fuel was to be permanently stored in deep underground repositories, away from floods and other natural hazards. But the solution to the nation’s nuclear waste problem has been elusive for decades. Meanwhile, 65,000 metric tons of spent reactor fuel is still looking for a home.
So what’s to be done?
Many states made a sensible decision years ago when they imposed moratoriums on new reactor construction until the waste problem was solved. What other industry is allowed to operate without being required to responsibly handle its waste? If more states had followed suit, we might be farther along in finding a safe disposal method.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is set to release its final report to the Administration about how to fix a nuclear waste management system that the commission itself has described as “all but completely broken down.”
The bipartisan commission has been charged with drafting a management strategy for waste that can clear scientific, environmental, public opinion— and political— hurdles.
The most important recommendation from the commission’s draft report is to develop one or more permanent deep geologic repositories using an “adaptive, staged and consent-based” approach.
PSR agrees that the long-term storage for spent fuel should be in a deep geologic repository. The Obama administration’s decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain turns up the heat on achieving a solution.
Finding one or more permanent repositories is not going to be easy. But it’s certain that it will be next to impossible if community consent is not solicited and obtained.
What are our options in the meantime?
Some have raised the possibility of reprocessing— a false promise to “solve” the waste problem, but in reality an option too dangerous to pursue. Reprocessing raises global security and proliferation issues. It guarantees greater waste problems and safety hazards at huge potential costs.
The Blue Ribbon Commission has proposed moving spent fuel, now scattered around the U.S. at 70 locations, to “interim” storage areas. Moving spent fuel around the country is not a risk worth taking. Rather than addressing the problem, an “interim” facility would only relocate it.
So what is the best option? Hardened on-site storage of spent fuel. It’s safe, cost-effective – and readily available.
PSR and over 170 other public interest organizations from all 50 states are calling for adoption of this approach. Storing reactor fuel at reactor sites in hardened buildings that can resist severe attacks, such as a direct hit by high-powered explosives or a large aircraft, as is done in Germany, offers the safest and most sensible option until a permanent repository can be found.
There is no need for further study of the HOSS option; it is economical and protects public health and safety. Communities near reactors with vulnerable spent fuel pools can be reassured that the risks of an accident will be significantly reduced with hardened on-site storage.
The Blue Ribbon Commission needs to seriously consider and recommend this and not defer a decision to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has shown little interest in addressing this issue.
The risks inherent in our current “storage” option of packing spent fuel in pools, long after the necessary five year cooling period, and relying on circulating water to keep the rods from overheating became obvious during the Fukushima accident. A natural disaster such as a flood or earthquake, or a terrorist attack, could release huge quantities of radiation.
Keeping the fuel in or very near its present locations but placing it in secure hardened storage augments safety and keeps the focus on finding a long-term permanent location for this waste.
Dr. Jeffrey Patterson is past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
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