At the malfunctioning Japanese atomic reactor, attention has shifted from the cores to the spent-fuel pools as the real radiation threat — the spent-fuel pools contain far more uranium than the reactor cores. Guess where most spent-fuel rods are stored in the United States? In pools at atomic power stations: exactly the situation at the Fukushima power plant in Japan.
There are much safer alternatives. One is “dry cask” storage of atomic waste, which does not require constant circulation of cooling water. Failure of cooling water circulation caused both the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents.
Hardly any of the spent fuel at Fukushima has been transferred to dry casks — only about five percent. That’s why the current emergency is extreme. Some atomic waste in the United States has been transferred to dry casks — your columnist once visited such an installation. Most has not, because dry casks are more expensive than wet pools and incredibly, U.S regulations do not mandate this safety step.
There is an even better idea than dry casks — the Yucca Mountain storage area in Nevada, designed specifically for spent fuel rods. Since 1992, the federal government has planned to move old fuel rods thousands of feet below the Nevada desert. Some $10 billion has been spent building the tunnels and elevators of the Yucca Mountain facility. The National Academy of Sciences has reviewed the design. A 2006 Senate report called Yucca Mountain “the most studied real estate on the planet.” Much of the spent fuel rods in the United States could already be far underground beneath Yucca Mountain, eliminating not just a Fukushima-style risk but all risks posed by this material.
Except that immediately after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama cancelled the Yucca Mountain project. Environmentalists hate deep storage, because by solving the atomic-waste problem, this would eliminate an argument against nuclear power. With pollution-free electricity from the atom increasingly attractive because of climate change, environmental orthodoxy wants the spent-rods problem to continue indefinitely.