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March 23, 2011

Lesson from Japan: Storing Spent Nuclear Fuel in Onsite Pools is a Bad Idea

There's much to learn from the damage done and not done to Japan's nuclear power plants by the unexpectedly severe twin punches of the earthquake and tsunami, but one lesson is already clear: storing nuclear waste onsite in pools at active power plants multiplies the risks when a "black swan" event occurs. We in the US need to deal with the problem of permanent storage for spent fuel rods. Like the Japanese, we've procrastinated because the problem is politically difficult to solve. China, which doesn't have to worry about the difficulties of making tough decisions in a democracy, has a desert storage facility for nuclear waste.

Many supporters of nuclear power, including me, have known that we'd need an eventual solution to the problem of storing or reprocessing spent fuel. I for one never realized the huge downside to the temporary solution of storing spent fuel at the plant. It seemed like a good idea to take advantage of existing plant security and expertise and to avoid transport until a permanent repository was available. With hindsight, it's clear that that a catastrophe which threatens the reactor may well also threaten the spent rods – at least if they're in a situation which requires active cooling. As we've seen in Japan, radiation from the spent rods can make it more difficult to deal with problems at the reactor while problems at the reactor make it more difficult to deal with problems in the storage area.

Most of our nuclear power plants are not in earthquake prone zones, although some are. We don't have Japan's tsunami worries at our plants. But black swans can't be predicted; we will have some other series of unforeseen events. We will find many ways to reduce risk substantially from Japan's experience and must keep learning. However, there is no excuse for not dealing almost immediately with the problem of long term waste storage. From what I know, the planned depository at Yucca Mountain is a good solution whose main drawbacks are political. If so, we need political leadership to put this solution in effect. If not, we need to move on to another location or to reprocessing.

This is not an argument, BTW, for a moratorium on nuclear power or against relicensing Vermont Yankee. All forms of energy involve risks and tradeoffs; there were huge fires at Japanese refineries, for example. The risks are magnified when we fail to deal with them. Supporters of nuclear power, just like supporters of any other technology, have an obligation to learn from experience. We all need to insist on political leaders who can make long term decisions.

Related posts:

Energy Tipping Point – Part 1

Nuclear Plants Shouldn't Be Subsidized Either

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