May 2012, Week 1


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Wed, 2 May 2012 20:19:32 -0400
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Why Fukushima Is a Greater Disaster than Chernobyl 
and a Warning Sign for the U.S.
By Robert Alvarez
Institute for Policy Studies
April 20, 2012 ยท

The radioactive inventory of all the irradiated nuclear
fuel stored in spent fuel pools at Fukushima is far
greater and even more problematic than the molten cores.

In the aftermath of the world's worst nuclear power
disaster, the news media is just beginning to grasp that
the dangers to Japan and the rest of the world posed by
the Fukushima-Dai-Ichi site are far from over. After
repeated warnings by former senior Japanese officials,
nuclear experts, and now a U.S. Senator, it is sinking
in that the irradiated nuclear fuel stored in spent fuel
pools amidst the reactor ruins may have far greater
potential offsite consequences than the molten cores.

After visiting the site recently, Senator Ron Wyden (D-
OR) wrote to Japan's ambassador to the U.S. stating
that, "loss of containment in any of these pools could
result in an even greater release than the initial

This is why:

Each pool contains irradiated fuel from several
years of operation, making for an extremely
large radioactive inventory without a strong
containment structure that encloses the reactor

Several pools are now completely open to the
atmosphere because the reactor buildings were
demolished by explosions; they are about 100
feet above ground and could possibly topple or
collapse from structural damage coupled with
another powerful earthquake;

The loss of water exposing the spent fuel will
result in overheating can cause melting and
ignite its zirconium metal cladding - resulting
in a fire that could deposit large amounts of
radioactive materials over hundreds of miles.

Irradiated nuclear fuel, also called "spent fuel," is
extraordinarily radioactive. In a matter of seconds, an
unprotected human one foot away from a single freshly
removed spent fuel assembly would receive a lethal dose
of radiation within seconds. As one of the most
dangerous materials in the world, spent reactor fuel
poses significant long-term risks, requiring isolation
in a geological disposal site that can protect the human
environment for tens of thousands of years.

It's almost 26 years since the Chernobyl reactor
exploded and caught fire releasing enormous amounts of
radioactive debris. The Chernobyl accident revealed the
folly of not having an extra barrier of thick concrete
and steel surrounding the reactor core that is required
for modern plants in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere. The
Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident revealed the folly of
storing huge amounts of highly radioactive spent fuel in
vulnerable pools, high above the ground.

What both accidents have in common is widespread
environmental contamination from cesium-137. With a
half-life of 30, years, Cs-137 gives off penetrating
radiation, as it decays. Once in the environment, it
mimics potassium as it accumulates in biota and the
human food chain for many decades. When it enters the
human body, about 75 percent lodges in muscle tissue,
with perhaps the most important muscle being the heart.
Studies of chronic exposure to Cs-137 among the people
living near Chernobyl show an alarming rate of heart
problems, particularly among children.

As more information is made available, we now know that
the Fukushima Dai-Ichi site is storing 10,833 spent fuel
assemblies (SNF) containing roughly 327 million curies
of long-lived radioactivity About 132 million curies is
cesium-137 or nearly 85 times the amount estimated to
have been released at Chernobyl.

The overall problem we face is that nearly all of the
spent fuel at the Dai-Ichi site is in vulnerable pools
in a high risk/consequence earthquake zone. The urgency
of the situation is underscored by the ongoing seismic
activity around NE Japan in which 13 earthquakes of
magnitude 4.0 - 5.7 have occurred off the NE coast of
Honshu in the last 4 days between 4/14 and 4/17. This
has been the norm since the first quake and tsunami hit
the site on March 11th of last year. Larger quakes are
expected closer to the power plant.

Last week, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revealed
plans to remove 2,274 spent fuel assemblies from the
damaged reactors that will probably take at least a
decade to accomplish. The first priority will be removal
of the contents in Pool No. 4. This pool is structurally
damaged and contains about 10 times more cesium-137 than
released at Chernobyl. Removal of SNF from the No. 4
reactor is optimistically expected to begin at the end
of 2013. A significant amount of construction to remove,
debris and reinforce the structurally-damaged reactor
buildings, especially the fuel- handling areas, will be

Also, it is not safe to keep 1,882 spent fuel assemblies
containing ~57 million curies of long-lived
radioactivity, including nearly 15 times more cs-137
than released at Chernobyl in the elevated pools at
reactors 5, 6, and 7, which did not experience melt-
downs and explosions.

The main reason why there is so much spent fuel at the
Da-Ichi site, is that it was supposed to be sent to the
Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which has experienced 18
lengthy delays throughout its construction history.
Plutonium and uranium was to be extracted from the spent
fuel there, with the plutonium to be used as fuel at the
Monju fast reactor.

After several decades and billions of dollars, the
United States effectively abandoned the "closed" nuclear
fuel cycle 30 years ago for cost and nuclear non-
proliferation reasons. Over the past 60 years, the
history of fast reactors using plutonium is littered
with failures the most recent being the Monju project in
Japan. Monju was cancelled in November of last year,
dealing a fatal blow to the dream of a "closed" nuclear
fuel cycle in Japan.
The stark reality, if TEPCO's plan is realized, is that
nearly all of the spent fuel at the Da-Ichi containing
some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on
the planet will remain indefinitely in vulnerable pools.
TEPCO wants to store the spent fuel from the damaged
reactors in the common pool, and only to resort to dry,
cask storage when the common pool's capacity is
exceeded. At this time, the common pool is at 80 percent
storage capacity and will require removal of SNF to
make room. TEPCO's plan is to minimize dry cask storage
as much as possible and to rely indefinitely on
vulnerable pool storage. Senator Wyden finds that
TEPCO's plan for remediation carries extraordinary and
continuing risk. He sensibly recommends that retrieval
of spent fuel in existing on-site spent fuel pools to
safer storage in dry casks should be a priority.

Given these circumstances, a key goal for the
stabilization of the Fukushima-Daichi site is to place
all of its spent reactor fuel into dry, hardened storage
casks. This will require about 244 additional casks at a
cost of about $1 million per cask. To accomplish this
goal, an international effort is required - something
that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has called for. As we have
learned, despite the enormous destruction from the
earthquake and tsunami at the Dai-Ich Site, the nine dry
casks and their contents were unscathed. This is an
important lesson we should not ignore.


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