Pools of Danger

WASHINGTON, DC – The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis in Japan has underscored the dangers of storing highly radioactive spent fuel in pools of water that are susceptible to breaches from natural disasters and hydrogen explosions from accidents. The crisis should serve as a wake-up call for governments and industry to take action to reduce the risks of spent-fuel storage.

Unfortunately, spent-fuel storage has been “an afterthought,” as Ernest Moniz, Director of the Energy Initiative at MIT, puts it. In dozens of countries, tens of thousands of tons of highly radioactive material has been kept in buildings that provide little of the usually rigorous protection surrounding radioactive material in reactors’ cores.

Pools have become overcrowded in many countries, owing to the lack of permanent repositories for nuclear waste. No country has opened such a repository, although Sweden has made significant progress in doing so.

The hazards of pools for spent nuclear fuel have been known for many years, but little action has been taken to alleviate the risks. One notable exception has been Germany. About 25 years ago, the German government began requiring spent fuel to be well protected. The older spent fuel that has cooled for about five years is placed in hardened, dry storage casks, and the younger, more radioactive, and hotter spent fuel is cooled in pools of water surrounded by strong containment structures.