On March 11, 2011, the most powerful recorded earthquake ever to hit Japan struck its eastern coast. It triggered an enormous tsunami that crashed over northern Japan. At its height the tsunami was over 113 feet high, which was enough to sweep buildings right off their foundations. Homes were washed away, roads were destroyed and buildings were severely damaged but the physical destruction was just the beginning of the emergency in Japan.
The tsunami triggered the largest nuclear disaster in Japan's history and, arguably, the history of the world. The wave caused a chain reaction, which led to partial meltdowns in reactors as well as fires in the spent fuel pools. When a reactor suffers a partial meltdown, radioactive substances are released into the surrounding environment contaminating it with high levels of radiation. Spent fuel pools also release radiation if the spent fuel overheats. Radiation can cause a laundry list of serious health problems and the amount of radiation released in the five months after the disaster in Fukushima is estimated to be the equivalent of more than 29 atomic bombs.
The disaster in Fukushima was exacerbated when the spent fuel pools, which were located on-site at the power plants, caught fire at several locations. Spent fuel or nuclear waste is highly radioactive and remains dangerous for over one thousand years. Most nuclear reactors store this waste in large pools close to the reactors. Spent fuel must be kept cool or it can ignite. Although it is less radioactive than reactor fuel, the plumes of radioactive smoke in a spent fuel fire can spread radiation much further than a localized leak.
If an accident like Fukushima occurred in the US, the disaster would be undoubtedly worse because plants in the US keep much higher quantities of spent fuel on-site. Of the 144 nuclear reactors in the US, 33 have dangerous levels of spent fuel. As of 2011, the US had 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel stored at plants, 75 percent of which was stored in pools. The US produces an additional 2,000 metric tons each year. Scientific studies have estimated that a serious accident involving spent fuel at a single plant could render 188 square miles of land uninhabitable, kill 138,000 people in a 500-mile radius and cost $546 billion in damage to property, healthcare, lives lost and other expenses associated with wide-scale destruction.
The biggest problem with spent fuel in the US is that there is no permanent way to dispose of it. Most plants store fuel in vulnerable spent fuel pools but some have chose to store spent fuel in dry casks. Once the fuel has been removed from the reactor and cooled for five years it can be moved into storage containers called dry casks. Dry casks are concrete and steel containment vessels that contain the radiation. The casks can safely store the fuel for up to 60 years. Most plants do no not use this method because it is considerably more expensive than storing the spent fuel in pools.
Despite this and the danger spent fuel poses, the US continues to encourage nuclear power which drives the production of spent fuel. The government has created a complex network of agencies and laws that overlap to regulate nuclear power. This causes confusion and makes developing new regulations a complicated process.
Congress attempted to create legislative solutions for the spent fuel problem in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), mandating that the US Department of Energy develop a long-term repository by 1998. However, there are scientific and political concerns associated with permanently storing dangerous materials. Developing a spent fuel repository in Yucca Mountain represented the government's longest and most expensive attempt to develop a permanent solution. However, the Obama administration withdrew funding for the depository in 2011, effectively killing the project, with an estimated loss of about $10 billion. Without a permanent solution, there are two steps the US should take to mitigate the dangers associated with spent fuel.
The first is a short-term measure that will make on-site storage safer for longer periods with dry cask storage. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should require nuclear power plants to remove excess spent fuel from the spent fuel pools and place it into dry casks. Currently, US reactor operators are permitted to keep spent fuel in the spent fuel pools until the pools are full. This results in five times more spent fuel than the original license contemplated which increases the chances of accidents. This requirement will ensure that the existing fuel remains safe for 60 years. Because the casks hold less fuel, if one is damaged the resulting radiation exposure would be easier to contain. Cask storage is not currently mandated because it is expensive. However, the cost of requiring dry casks is far less than the cost of a serious accident involving spent fuel.
The second step is a long-term measure that adjusts the liability scheme in the US to force the nuclear industry to internalize the costs of spent fuel. The Price-Anderson Act functions as an insurance measure for the nuclear industry in the event that an accident exceeds $12 billion. This act would apply to a spent fuel disaster, which could cost $546 billion. Under the Price Anderson Act, the federal government and not the nuclear industry, would be responsible for any amount in excess of the $12 billion statutory cap. This encourages the industry to cut corners in safety. In addition the government has taken responsibility for disposal of spent fuel under the NWPA. This law should be modified to shift the burden of spent fuel management onto the nuclear industry. The NWPA should be amended to require a greater contribution from the nuclear industry so that it has the incentive to assist in the government's search for a permanent repository. Lastly, NWPA should be modified to disclaim title until the spent fuel is accepted into a permanent repository. This will force the nuclear industry to take a more active role in finding a solution to the problem of permanently disposing of spent fuel.
This two-step plan will make spent fuel safer and help the market truly assess the cost of nuclear energy. By implementing dry cask storage, the imminent danger of spent fuel will be mitigated. It will protect citizens and partially shift the costs of the risks onto the industry. If the Price Anderson Act and the NWPA were amended, the nuclear industry would need to internalize the cost of spent fuel maintenance and safety. These measures will be costly to the nuclear industry but are necessary if the market is to reflect the true cost of nuclear power. If the cost of the power more accurately takes into account the risks, consumers and the government can better assess whether this type of energy is worth the investment.
Catherine Jahn is interested in environmental law and the future of America's environmental policies. Her experience includes internship positions with Panzavecchia & Associates, PLLC., the Elder Law Clinic at St. John's University School of Law, Nassau County District Attorney's Office and the Prosecution Clinic at St. John's University School of Law.
Suggested citation: Catherine Jahn, One Thousand Years of Danger: Spent Nuclear Fuel Production and Management in the US, JURIST - Dateline, Oct. 22, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/10/catherine-jahn-nuclear-energy.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Imbarlina, the head of JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org