Before the nuclear disaster in Japan, most people probably didn't know that there is something potentially worse than a nuclear reactor core meltdown. That's the breach and exposure of containers holding hundreds of radioactive rods of spent nuclear fuel.
That's what crews are battling at the crippled Fukushima nuclear facility.
Here's why that is potentially a bigger problem than a meltdown: In the Japanese reactors — as in many U.S. reactors — the spent fuel is housed in large water-filled pools in the reactor building but outside the concrete-and-steel fortress that surrounds the reactor core.
If the core melts down, any radiation released is likely to be partly bottled up by the containment vessel.
Not so for the spent fuel pools, which often contain far more radioactive material than in the reactor. If the water that keeps those rods cool drains or boils away, the used fuel can catch fire. Result: A dangerous plume of extremely high radioactivity spewed into the air.
Obvious question: Why do nuclear plants store spent fuel that way?
Obvious answer in the U.S.: Yucca Mountain isn't open. In the 1980s, the federal government launched plans to ship nuclear waste to a storage lair carved into the mountain in Nevada and let it slowly and harmlessly decay.
But lawsuits, politics and environmental challenges stalled the project for decades.
Last year — 12 years after it was supposed to open — the Obama administration declared Yucca dead and created a panel to study "alternatives."
"We're done with Yucca," White House energy adviser Carol Browner said at the time. "We need to be looking at other alternatives."
Alternatives that, presumably, weren't in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's backyard.
The decision to mothball Yucca was a huge mistake, and the Obama administration should recognize that in the wake of the nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan.
The storage caverns at Yucca would be 1,000 feet below the surface and 1,000 feet above the water table in the Nevada desert. They would be geologically stable. Water seepage from the surface is minimal.
Wake-up call: Illinois is home to more spent fuel rods than any other state in the nation.
The U.S. doesn't have another three decades to dither about where to store nuclear waste. Those spent fuel rods are piling up in reactors near major cities — including at the scuttled Zion nuclear power plant here. About 1,100 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel rods stand about a football field away from Lake Michigan. Another 6,100 tons are stored at other Illinois plants.
A breach of those fuel pools and a release of huge radioactive plumes could create a disaster as bad as, or worse than, Chernobyl.
In 1997, the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island studied the worst-case toll of a spent fuel conflagration. The scary results: 101 immediate deaths in a 500-mile range, 138,000 eventual deaths, 2,170 miles of land contaminated. Estimated economic damages: $546 billion.
Until the Japanese earthquake and tsunami ruined the Fukushima reactors, the likelihood of a spent-fuel cataclysm seemed remote. No, we're not going to have a 9.0 earthquake in Zion or tsunami on Lake Michigan. But let's not mask that there is substantial risk to stalling on a central, secure storage location for the nation's spent nuclear fuel.
In the short term, America's nuclear industry can reduce risks by moving more spent fuel from reactor buildings into dry casks — sturdy concrete and steel containers nearly the size of a truck trailer — elsewhere on site.
In the long run, however, nuclear waste shouldn't be scattered near population centers across the country. It should be entombed in Yucca Mountain.
Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune