Japan’s chief cabinet secretary called it “the devil’s scenario.” Two weeks after the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing three nuclear reactors to melt down and release radioactive plumes, officials were bracing for even worse. They feared that spent fuel stored in the reactor halls would catch fire and send radioactive smoke across a much wider swath of eastern Japan, including Tokyo.
Thanks to a lucky break detailed in a report released today by the U.S. National Academies, Japan dodged that bullet. The near calamity “should serve as a wake-up call for the industry,” says Joseph Shepherd, a mechanical engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who chaired the academy committee that produced the report. Spent fuel accumulating at U.S. nuclear reactor plants is also vulnerable, the report warns. A major spent fuel fire at a U.S. nuclear plant “could dwarf the horrific consequences of the Fukushima accident,” says Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., who was not on the panel.
After spent fuel is removed from a reactor core, the fission products continue to decay radioactively, generating heat. Many nuclear plants, like Fukushima, store the fuel onsite at the bottom of deep pools for at least 5 years while it slowly cools. It is seriously vulnerable there, as the Fukushima accident demonstrated, and so the academy panel recommends that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and nuclear plant operators beef up systems for monitoring the pools and topping up water levels in case a facility is damaged. It also calls for more robust security measures after a disaster. “Disruptions create opportunities for malevolent acts,” Shepherd says.
At Fukushima, the earthquake and tsunami cut power to pumps that circulated coolant through the reactor cores and cooled water in the spent fuel pools. The pump failure led to the core meltdowns. In the pools, found in all six of Fukushima’s reactor halls, radioactive decay gradually heated the water. Of preeminent concern were the pools in reactor Units 1 through 4: Those buildings had sustained heavy damage on 11 March and in subsequent days, when explosions occurred in Units 1, 3, and 4.
The “devil’s scenario” nearly played out in Unit 4, where the reactor was shut down for maintenance. The entire reactor core—all 548 assemblies—was in the spent fuel pool, and was hotter than fuel in the other pools. When an explosion blew off Unit 4’s roof on 15 March, plant operators assumed the cause was hydrogen—and they feared it had come from fuel in the pool that had been exposed to air. They could not confirm that, because the blast had destroyed instrumentation for monitoring the pool. (Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant operator, later suggested that the hydrogen that had exploded had come not from exposed spent fuel but from the melted reactor core in the adjacent Unit 3.) But the possibility that the fuel had been exposed was plausible and alarming enough for then-NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko on 16 March to urge more extensive evacuations than the Japanese government had advised—beyond a 20-kilometer radius from the plant.
Later that day, however, concerns abated after a helicopter overflight captured video of sunlight glinting off water in the spent fuel pool. In fact, the crisis was worsening: The pool’s water was boiling away because of the hot fuel. As the level fell perilously close to the top of the fuel assemblies, something “fortuitous” happened, Shepherd says. As part of routine maintenance, workers had flooded Unit 4’s reactor well, where the core normally sits. Separating the well and the spent fuel pool is a gate through which fuel assemblies are transferred. The gate allowed water from the reactor well to leak into the spent fuel pool, partially refilling it. Without that leakage, the academy panel’s own modeling predicted that the tops of the fuel assemblies would have been exposed by early April; as the water continued to evaporate, the odds of the assemblies’ zirconium cladding catching fire would have skyrocketed. Only good fortune and makeshift measures to pump or spray water into all the spent fuel pools averted that disaster, the academy panel notes.
At U.S. nuclear plants, spent fuel is equally vulnerable. It is for the most part densely packed in pools, heightening the fire risk if cooling systems were to fail. NRC has estimated that a major fire in a U.S. spent fuel pool would displace, on average, 3.4 million people from an area larger than New Jersey. “We’re talking about trillion-dollar consequences,” says panelist Frank von Hippel, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University.
Besides developing better systems for monitoring the pools, the panel recommends that NRC take another look at the benefits of moving spent fuel to other storage as quickly as possible. Spent fuel can be shifted to concrete containers called dry casks as soon as it cools sufficiently, and the academy panel recommends that NRC “assess the risks and potential benefits of expedited transfer.” A wholesale transfer to dry casks at U.S. plants would cost roughly $4 billion.