Nuclear Power and the Witch Hunt

Across the street from me when I was a little girl, there lived a witch. She and her husband lived in their house and I was sure they buried bodies in the flowerbed. That’s what all my friends said and I believed them. If our ball went into their yard, we all dared each other to go in to get it. There were never any children at the house and we never went there on Halloween. One day, my mother asked me to go to this house to take something to Mrs. Smith. Turned out she was a nice old lady who didn’t have any kids or grandkids. She just didn’t like us kids trampling her flowers very much.

The spent fuel pools at Fukushima are another witch hunt.

Early in the event, there was smoke seen in the vicinity of the unit 4 pool, initially most people thought it was an oil fire created by leaking fluids from equipment on or near the refuel floor. Then, there was a rather large hydrogen explosion. This was assumed to have been produced from a zirconium reaction in the spent fuel pool. And THAT could only have occurred if the pool was essentially dry. I reported the same to numerous reporters, journalists, members of the public over the course of the next six weeks.

This series of events and assumptions led to sharp warnings from the chairman of the NRC, and an opinion on the part of virtually everyone that spent fuel pools are extremely dangerous and should be modified to protect the public from any possible risk of the similar scenario in this country.

End of story, right?

BUT – WE WERE WRONG!!!!!

Let me make it clear. The unit 4 pool fuel is undamaged (see the video here) and the relative contamination of the water is low, indicating that few, if any, fuel rods have even failed, let alone suffered significant degradation associated with a pool fire.

Yet, the story is still being told by industry people to the general public. I heard it again yesterday when a local reporter asked me to explain in more detail about the Spent Fuel Pool storage at Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant. When she came to me, she asked me about the fires in those pools. She told me that the folks at Brunswick had told her about the pool fires at Fukushima.

Should we do something about Spent Fuel Pools in this country? Absolutely, there is a clear risk there. Most certainly the difficulties in keeping these pools adequately cooled have been an added burden on TEPCO in an already difficult situation. But we should make any changes in approach in concert with the larger issue of long term spent fuel disposition. Dry cask storage of older spent fuel is still a good option. The casks are designed to be transported wherever in the country we want them to go as well as keep the fuel safe and cool at any storage site. The casks at Fukushima weathered the earthquake and ensuing tsunami with no apparent damage. A good indication of the capabilities of these systems.

BUT, we should not make significant changes in the approach to spent fuel storage without ensuring that we are not creating a different problem down the road. I’ve heard some suggest that fuel that has been very recently discharged should be moved into dry casks and stored so that very little fuel sits in the SFP’s for very short periods of time. This fuel is extremely hot, both temperature and radiation and has many increased risks in handling and exposure. Before we go fixing a problem, let’s make sure it really exists AND that we are not creating another problem.

The lesson learned here is that we should continue to observe what is happening and make sure we have our facts straight before jumping in again and assuming the worst. Things will continue to develop in Japan and what we thought we knew will continue to change, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. In this case, there is good news that hasn’t been shared well.

So what really happened to cause the explosion in unit 4?

The Japanese are still investigating the cause of the explosion in unit 4 and have come up with some alternate ideas. I’ll let them finish their studies before announcing yet another witch story.