In an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2002, Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar Robert Alvarez wrote, "several events could cause a loss of pool water, including leakage, evaporation, siphoning, pumping, aircraft impact, earthquake, accidental or deliberate drop of a fuel transport cask, reactor failure, or an explosion inside or outside the pool building." The recent loss of pool water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex and subsequent radiation release tragically illustrated his point.
A year later, a group of nuclear scientists and academics – including Alvarez – published a report theorizing the potential damage that a terrorist attack on nuclear plants could cause and calling for the spent fuel in nuclear reactors to be stored in dry, underground casks. Their report faced stark opposition from the agency charged with regulating the nuclear industry – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Following a presentation to the commission by the report's authors, one of the commissioners ordered a staff directive(pdf) with a hurried tone Alvarez still remembers: "Is there a chance that we can have a hard hitting critique of the Alvarez study anytime soon?"
Similarly, in the aftermath of Japan's nuclear crisis, staunch nuclear energy defenders are trying to derail an urgent discussion about nuclear safety by telling us to focus on the tsunami.
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For the Alvarez report, the hard-hitting critique ordered by the members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission came later that year. The National Academy of Sciences was ordered by Congress to referee the dispute and to commission its own report on the spent fuel danger. That report agreed: cask storage is safer than pool storage to prevent catastrophic circumstances of any sort. To this day, those recommendations remain ignored by the government. Most spent fuel is being stored onsite at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors.
Ignoring this issue and hoping that people would just forget about nuclear dangers had worked just fine for the nuclear lobby, which sought to dismantle already weak U.S. regulations, until recently. In June of last year, a poll commissioned by the industry-friendly Nuclear Energy Institute found that support for nuclear energy was at an all-time high among supporters of both political parties(pdf). The Fukushima disaster reaffirmed nuclear energy's dangers, however, and the public's stance has dramatically changed, with a majority opposing the construction of new reactors and preferring investments in renewable alternatives. The government should finally address the dangers posed by unsafe storage practices for spent fuel.
Following Japan's terrifying nuclear crisis, it's time to get bureaucratic regulators do their job instead of cozying up to the demands of companies they're supposed to regulate. People from all over the world are lending their support to the people of Japan. Let's learn the lessons of their struggle. We need an energy strategy that emphasizes safer nuclear waste storage, discourages the construction of new reactors, and makes renewable energy sources such as wind and solar a top priority.