Is Nuclear Energy Safe? - Part 2

By Levi Anthony - Posted 4/24/2011

And we are not taking about a few spent fuel rods here and there. According to Robert Alvarez, a nuclear policy specialist, the amount of spent nuclear fuel in the United States comprises the largest concentration of radioactivity on the planet: 71,000 metric tons. This is four times more waste in the spent fuel pools than they’re designed to handle. Each Fukushima spent fuel pool holds about 100 metric tons, he says, while each US pool holds from 500-700 metric tons. A single pool fire would release catastrophic amounts of radioactivity, rendering 17-22,000 square miles of area uninhabitable.

And where are these spent rods? They are actually being kept at the nuclear plants themselves in large pools of about 25 feet of water. Because they continue to generate intense heat they have to be submerged in these pools to keep them cool. And God forbid if these pools are deprived of water. And how dangerous is this? We just need to look at Japan.

Like the United States, Japan stored most of its spent fuel rods in pools. When the earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, the plant lost power and the pumps pumping water into the pools with the spent rods shut down. The remaining water in the pools was quickly evaporating and the Japanese desperately tried various ways to keep these pools filled with water, including using helicopters to drop water from the air directly over the pools. Of course, this didn’t work and for days firemen have been called in to pump water from their trucks. If these rods are deprived of water, they become dried and brittle and more radioactive. And so the days since the earthquake, the brave workers at the plant have been racing against time to keep water flowing into these pools.

And what about the risk of earthquakes? Of course, the operators of these power plants constantly reassured the public that their plants are safe and are built to withstand large earthquakes. So did the Japanese. The fact is that no one can safely predict the forces of nature, especially in times of accelerating global warning. Earthquakes can occur in all sorts of places.

In a 2010 report, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission “estimates of the potential for earthquake hazards for some nuclear power plants in the Central and Eastern United States may be larger than previous estimates.”

In January 1986, a late-morning quake measuring 4.96 on the Richter scale was blamed for cracks in the Perry Nuclear Power Plant on Lake Erie near Cleveland. A previously unknown fault line also runs near the Indian Point plant, 24 miles north of New York City. Indian Point’s two units are up for relicensing by the NRC in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and a fierce battle is expected. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while campaigning last year, called for Indian Point to be closed. Now he has ordered a safety review of the plant.

Here is a quick review of nuclear accidents in the United States from the Rachael Maddow show.

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