Nuclear Meltdown: The Potential for Nuclear Disaster in the U.S.

Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant. (Image:    Wikimedia Commons )
Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant. (Image: Wikimedia Commons )

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is being accused of using faulty analysis to justify its refusal to adopt critical measures for protecting Americans from the occurrence of a catastrophic nuclear-waste fire. A nuclear-waste fire could happen at any one of the many reactor sites around the country, the article states.

According to the article, published in Science, the fallout from such a fire could be significantly larger than that of the radioactive emissions from the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan. The article was written by researchers from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The researchers argue that because of NRC inaction, there is a high risk to the public from fires in spent-nuclear-fuel cooling pools at reactor sites. The pools are water-filled basins that are used to store and cool used radioactive fuel rods.

This image captures the spread of radioactivity from a hypothetical fire in a high-density spent-fuel pool at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania. Based on the guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the experience from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, populations in the red and orange areas would have to be relocated for many years, and many in the yellow area would relocate voluntarily. In this scenario, which is based on real weather patterns that occurred in July 2015, four major cities would be contaminated (New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.), resulting in the displacement of millions of people. (Image: via Michael Schoeppner, Princeton University, Program on Science and Global Security)

This image captures the spread of radioactivity from a hypothetical fire in a high-density spent-fuel pool at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania. Based on the guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the experience from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, populations in the red and orange areas would have to be relocated for many years, and many in the yellow area would relocate voluntarily. In this scenario, which is based on real weather patterns that occurred in July 2015, four major cities would be contaminated (New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.), resulting in the displacement of millions of people. (Image: Michael Schoeppner, Princeton University, Program on Science and Global Security)

The authors believe that the fuel rods are so densely packed with nuclear waste that if a fire was to happen, it could release enough radioactive material to contaminate an area twice the size of New Jersey. Such a radioactive accident could force around 8 million people to relocate and result in $2 trillion in damages.

This could be triggered by a large earthquake or even a terrorist attack; all this could be largely avoided by regulatory measures that the NRC refuses to implement. By using a biased regulatory analysis, the agency has excluded any possible act of terrorism and the potential for damage from a fire beyond 50 miles of a plant.

The researchers believe that by failing to account for these and other factors, it has led to the NRC significantly underestimating the devastation such a disaster may cause. Paper co-author Frank von Hippel, a senior research physicist at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security (SGS), based at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said in a statement:

Since the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan’s focus on spent-fuel pools has increased. The disaster at Fukushima was caused by a devastating tsunami after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. When the tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it disabled the electrical systems that were necessary for cooling the reactor cores.

This led to core meltdowns at three of the six reactors at the facility, hydrogen explosions, and the release of radioactive material. Von Hippel explains how things could have been worse:

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC did consider proposals for new safety requirements at U.S. plants. Because densely packed pools are extremely vulnerable to catching fire, which would then release huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, one measure was to prohibit plant owners from densely packing spent-fuel pools.

Instead, plant owners would be required to transfer all spent fuel that has cooled in pools for at least five years to much safer dry storage casks.

This image captures the spread of radioactivity from a hypothetical fire in a high-density spent-fuel pool at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania. In this scenario, which is based on real weather patterns that occurred in January 2015, New York City and Philadelphia would be highly contaminated, forcing millions of people to evacuate. Based on guidance from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the experience from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, populations in the red and orange areas would have to be relocated for many years, and many in the yellow area would relocate voluntarily. (Image: via Michael Schoeppner, Princeton University, Program on Science and Global Security)

This image captures the spread of radioactivity from a hypothetical fire in a high-density spent-fuel pool at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania. In this scenario, which is based on real weather patterns that occurred in January 2015, New York City and Philadelphia would be highly contaminated, forcing millions of people to evacuate. Based on guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the experience from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, populations in the red and orange areas would have to be relocated for many years, and many in the yellow area would relocate voluntarily. (Image: Michael Schoeppner, Princeton University, Program on Science and Global Security)

The NRC analysis found that a fire at an average site would cause $125 billion in damages. However, the agency decided the possibility of such a fire was so unlikely it could not justify requiring plant owners to pay the estimated cost of $50 million per pool. This decision was made even though transferring spent fuel to dry casks would reduce radioactive releases from pool fires by 99 percent.

In the NRC cost-benefit analysis, they assume there would be no consequences from radioactive contamination beyond 50 miles from a fire; this assumption goes against what we learned about the Chernobyl disaster. It has also assumed that any contaminated areas would be effectively cleaned up within a year; again, this goes against what we learned after the Fukushima disaster.

Von Hippel and Schoeppner have released figures in two previous articles that are more realistic. They indicate that there would be millions of residents in surrounding communities who would have to relocate for years; this would result in damages of around 2 trillion dollars (nearly 20 times the NRC’s result).

Due to the Price Anderson Act of 1957, the nuclear industry is only legally liable for $13.6 billion, so taxpayers would have to foot the remaining costs. The authors also point out that Congress has the authority to fix the problem if the NRC doesn’t take the steps to reduce this danger.

Taking one step further, the authors suggest states that provide subsidies to uneconomical nuclear reactors could subsidies only plants that agreed to carry out the transfer of spent fuel. Edwin Lyman, a co-author and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained that:

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