Radioactive fuel rods

Radioactive fuel rods: The silent threat – The Week, 9 April 11,Japan’s nuclear crisis has highlighted the danger of the spent fuel rods piling up outside America’s nuclear plants

What are fuel rods?
They’re the source of the fission reaction that makes nuclear plants work. Fuel rods are long metal tubes filled with uranium that’s been formed into pellets. When these rods are placed inside the reactor, nuclear fission occurs, generating heat. That in turn boils water and creates steam, which powers turbines and produces electricity. When the uranium fuel is used up, usually after about 18 months, the spent rods are generally moved to deep pools of circulating water to cool down for about 10 years, though they remain dangerously radioactive for about 10,000 years.
How do the Japanese store their spent fuel rods?
The same way we do in the U.S. When the earthquake and tsunami knocked out the cooling systems at the multiple nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, it wasn’t just the reactors that were affected. Several spent-fuel-rod pools also lost electric power, shutting down pumps. Water in the cooling pools stopped circulating and began to boil off or leak out. As the water level fell, the spent fuel rods were exposed, and their temperatures soared. Several began to melt down, releasing extremely high levels of radiation into the air.

Could that happen in the U.S.?
It’s within the realm of possibility. The U.S. has 104 operating nuclear plants, and most store all the spent fuel rods they’ve ever used right on-site. All told, there are 71,900 tons of spent fuel rods at U.S. nuke plants—the vast majority of them sitting in pools that today are mostly full, according to a recent state-by-state tally by the Associated Press. “The spent-fuel pools are currently holding, on the average, four times more than their designs intended,” said Robert Alvarez, of the Institute for Policy Studies. U.S. officials insist they have stricter safety standards for the pools than Japan does. But former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Peter Bradford said, “The phrase ‘it can’t happen here’ is an invitation to disaster.”
Is there a threat of terrorism?
There’s little doubt of that. The National Academy of Sciences warned Congress in 2006 that if terrorists flew a plane into the pools, or bombed the pools after crashing through a plant’s security perimeter, they could expose the fuel rods, causing “the release of large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment.” David Lochbaum, head of the nuclear-safety program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told a congressional hearing last week that while nuclear fuel inside reactors is protected by multiple thick layers of metal and concrete shielding, spent-fuel pools are typically covered with sheet-metal roofs, “like that in a Sears storage shed.” Pete Stockton, a former security expert with the Department of Energy, warns that if fuel rods were exposed and melted down near a populated area, the resulting radiation would force a massive evacuation. The Indian Point plant 35 miles north of Manhattan, for example, could “take out New York City,” Stockton said.
How urgent is the situation?
Fairly urgent. The NRC predicts that at the rate we’re discarding rods—about 2,000 tons a year—we’ll run out of existing storage space by 2015…..

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