US Spent Nuclear Fuel Largest Concentration Of Radioactivity On Planet
Bob Alvaraz: US has 71,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel that is not properly protected
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Welcome to Earthbeat on The Real News Network. I’m Daphne Wysham. In the aftermath of the partial meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, attention is being turned to the role of spent fuel in the pools, both in Japan and here in the United States. To help us understand just how serious this problem is in the United States, we have in the studio with us here in Washington, DC, Bob Alvarez. Bob is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. And in the interest of full disclosure, I also work at the Institute for Policy Studies. He has been a nuclear policy specialist since 1975 and a former policy adviser under the Clinton Administration in the Department of Energy. Welcome to Earthbeat.
BOB ALVAREZ: Thank you for having me on.
WYSHAM: So, Bob, let’s begin the process with discussing just exactly how much spent fuel we have here in the United States at the 100-plus nuclear reactors around the country.
ALVAREZ: Well, we have the largest inventory of spent fuel in the world. It’s about–it’s been recently reported to be at this time about 71,000 metric tons. And it really represents the largest concentration of radioactivity on the planet.
WYSHAM: Now, you authored a report in 2003. You actually pulled together a report because you were very concerned about all this spent fuel lying around in the reactors in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack.
ALVAREZ: That’s right.
WYSHAM: Tell us about that report and what the response was to that report.
ALVAREZ: Well, several of us, my colleagues and I, became concerned that these spent-fuel storage pools that are at the US reactors were vulnerable to acts of terror and that no one had sort of looked at what might happen if they were attacked. So we assembled a working group that included–my colleagues included people from academia, former nuclear industry executives, former government types like myself and other researchers, and took a very hard look at the safety literature regarding spent fuel pools, and basically took it to its logical extreme in terms of an act of terror. And what we found is that these pools are vulnerable, and that the United States for the last several decades has permitted the reactor operators to put as much as four times more in the spent fuel pools than their designs envisioned.
WYSHAM: Four times.
ALVAREZ: That’s right.
WYSHAM: So just relative to what’s happening in Fukushima, do we have four times the quantity of what now is being stored at the reactors in Fukushima?
ALVAREZ: Oh, easily, easily, and then more.
WYSHAM: No, but I mean at each reactor.
ALVAREZ: That’s right, that’s right. I mean, the Fukushima reactors that are now under–you know, sort of undergoing this crisis–and they’re not yet out of the woods–and the pools are part of that problem. /tIp/, you know, basically on the average contain about 100 metric tons. Spent fuel pools in the United States contain as much as 500, 600, 700 metric tons.
WYSHAM: Okay. So let’s turn to the response from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to your report. What was it?
ALVAREZ: What we reported, which I think is important, is that these pools were vulnerable, and that if they were caused to–something caused them to drain–they would lose their water–the temperature in the spent fuel, because of the radioactive material decaying, would get so high that it would cause, essentially, the cladding of the fuel to catch fire and release catastrophic amounts of radioactivity. And we estimated that a single pool fire in the United States at a typical reactor could render an area uninhabitable substantially greater than that created by the Chernobyl accident. The Chernobyl accident created an area of uninhabitability that’s roughly the size of half of New Jersey.
WYSHAM: So you’re suggesting that this would be even greater than that, greater than half of New Jersey. And how much greater?
ALVAREZ: Four to five times.
WYSHAM: Four to five times.
ALVAREZ: So we also recommended that this is a problem that can be fixed, or at least mitigated, and that these pools should not be holding anywhere near what they’re holding. They should place about 75 percent of it, the stuff that has aged longer than five years, into dry, hardened storage containers, which we have now in the United States. But only 14 percent of our spent fuel is in these containers.
WYSHAM: And Germany did this 25 years ago.
ALVAREZ: That’s right. Germany did this 25 years ago. And they have their spent pools under think containment. And their spent fuel is stored in these big concrete casks, and they have them buried in hillsides. Or if they can’t do that, they have them in thick concrete buildings capable of withstanding aerial impacts. The response by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry was hostile, and they issued a lot of criticisms to our report. And it generated enough controversy at the time that the United States Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to sort this out. In 2004, the National Academy basically agreed that you could not rule out this possibility, and that a terrorist attack might cause this to happen, and that they had to take this problem seriously. The report was released after the NRC attempted to suppress it.
WYSHAM: Why do you think the NRC was so hostile to this report and its findings?
ALVAREZ: I think that the NRC has become entirely too codependent on the nuclear industry which it regulates. And this is a problem that’s been going on for the last 15 or 20 years. It’s very similar to what’s happened to the Securities Exchange Commission, in terms of what happened and their ability to oversee and regulate the financial services industry before the economic collapse.
WYSHAM: Who appoints the members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?
ALVAREZ: Well, they’re nominated by the president and they have to be approved by the Senate. And the way it works is that the Congress also controls how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission spends its money. So what’s happened over the last 15 or so years is that Congress has forced the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, through its power over spending, to greatly curtail its regulatory programs. And so now the NRC is very, very dependent, entirely too dependent on industry self-reporting of problems. So they’ve become codependent. And I think that their response to our report was an example of that codependence.
WYSHAM: Now, Greg Jaczko is the current chair of the NRC, correct?
ALVAREZ: That’s right.
WYSHAM: And he actually played a role in helping to push forward this report when it was released, correct?
ALVAREZ: When he worked for Senator Harry Reid, he was very helpful in making sure that we were able to brief members of Congress and Hill staffers and was supportive of what we were doing at the time. And since then, he’s become the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He would not have been put on the commission were it not for the fact that he worked for a very powerful number of Congress.
WYSHAM: How responsive do you think he would be now, given the state of concern about spent fuel in this country?
ALVAREZ: Well, I think he’s responsive, but you have to understand that he’s one of five members who vote, and while he’s the chairman, he’s not all-powerful.
WYSHAM: And what are the–who are the other members?
ALVAREZ: Well, the other members, the way it works is that in order to get these nominees through the Senate, there have to be at least one to two seats that are pleasing to the nuclear industry, or else nobody gets through. This is the way it’s worked. So the industry has had a lot of say-so over who gets appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And chairman Yatzko is a rather major exception to that.
WYSHAM: So what can be done to try to pressure the other members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to actually act on these findings? I mean, it seems it’s a no-brainer at this point to protect the American people from something like a Fukushima situation in the United States.
ALVAREZ: Well, I mean, it’s not a pretty picture in this country right now, because of the Congress dominated by politicians who want to take a meat ax to programs that protect our public safety, feed our children, reduce the hardship of the poor, and all these things. I mean, for example, the House passed funding legislation recently that cut off all fundings for the federal program to issue tsunami warnings. It’s a very difficult environment right now. So–but I think that the public should do everything they can, if they have these nuclear power plants anywhere near their backyards, is to call their members of Congress to task about fixing this problem.
WYSHAM: Okay. We’re going to take a break right there. We’ll come back with more from Bob Alvarez. Stay tuned. I’m Daphne Wysham. You’re watching Earthbeat on The Real News Network.
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