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Sunday
May292011

Robert Alvarez warns about catastrophic risks at U.S. high-level radioactive waste storage pools

Robert Alvarez (pictured at left), senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior advisor to the Energy Secretary during the Clinton administration, has published "Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage." The report comes in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, in which one or more high-level radioactive waste storage pools may have already discharged catastrophic amounts of radioactivity into the environment, and several more remain at risk of doing so for lack of cooling water. Alvarez warns that densely-packed high-level radioactive waste storage pools at U.S. nuclear power plants should be off-loaded into outdoor dry casks as a vital national security measure. But while such irradiated nuclear fuel transfer from pools to dry casks is necessary, it is far from sufficient. Although he mentions the need to upgrade safety and security on current dry cask storage in the U.S., and even cites the National Academies of Science saying it is needed, this report falls short of fully calling for hardened on-site storage (HOSS). HOSS, endorsed by nearly 200 environmental groups across the U.S., also calls for pools to be emptied, but into hardened, well designed and constructed dry casks. Hardening envisions fortifications against attack, safeguards against accident, radiation and heat monitoring, and quality assurance to prevent failure of the containers in the decades and even centuries to come. None of this is currently required by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In fact, the very dry cask systems Alvarez points to in his report have exhibited safety, security, and environmental vulnerabilities. The German Castor cask failed to withstand a TOW anti-tank missile simulated attack at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in 1998. And the Holtec casks -- already deployed at 33 operating U.S. atomic reactors -- suffer from major QA violations in their design, manufacture, and operational usage. Of course, we must stop making high-level radioactive waste -- once it exists, it is inherently risky forevermore.