Gregg Easterbrook

The danger of spent-fuel rods and the Yucca Mountain project

Mar 18, 2011 20:09 UTC

JAPAN-QUAKE/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.

Japan’s real disaster

Mar 15, 2011 19:45 UTC


The situation in Japan is horrific — but because of the earthquake and tsunami, not because of the malfunctioning atomic reactor station. The earthquake and its awful aftermath killed at least thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands. That is an unspeakable tragedy. The damaged reactors at Fukushima haven’t killed anyone, and while posing a clear danger, especially to workers heroically fighting the malfunction, the odds are that any harm to public health will be minor, if public health is harmed at all.

Yet in the United States and European Union, what’s happening at the power plant is receiving more attention, and generating more anxiety, than thousands of innocents crushed or drowned.

Japan is the sole place nuclear weapons have been used: to see the Japanese suffer, again, from fear of the atom is heartrending. But the reaction to the power plant in Japan shows lack of perspective. Today’s Washington Post front page proclaims, in large type, a “FULL- BLOWN NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE.” The earthquake and tsunami were catastrophes; the power plant leaks may cause little harm, let alone represent a “catastrophe.”

China as number one? Remember Japan in the ’80s

Aug 18, 2010 21:27 UTC

An Asian nation with a roaring economy will eclipse the United States … America has entered a cycle of decline, while the sun is rising in the East … soon all our products will be made overseas and America will falter … doom is at hand.

The above paragraph does not describe Monday’s news about the expansion of the Chinese economy — this is what opinion-makers were saying about Japan in the 1980s. And how’d that work out for you, Tokyo?

“Experts,” the New York Times intoned on Monday, are impressed by “China’s clout” and believe “China will pass the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy as early as 2030.” If experts think this, then it’s certain not to happen.