A widening pool of nuclear worries

According to a classified report, storage pools containing spent-fuel rods from the nation's 103 electricity-generating nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

By Page Rockwell
Published March 30, 2005 12:15AM (EST)

In addition to the specter of a new global arms race, there's more to worry about on the homefront regarding nukes: According to Monday's Washington Post, a classified National Academy of Sciences report concluded that storage pools containing spent-fuel rods from the country's 103 electricity-generating nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The pools' primary function is to cool the rods and provide a radiation shield. After five years of cooling, the rods can potentially be moved to dry storage inside heavy lead-and-steel casks. But because the casks are expensive, commercial nuclear facilities have opted to let the rods pile up -- some pools hold 1,000 tons of waste. The National Academy's report found that the dry casks are a safer storage strategy, because attacks by aircraft or large explosions could cause the pools to drain, creating large-scale public health and fire hazards.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been scrambling to discredit the National Academy's findings. Earlier this month, commission chairman Nils Diaz sent a letter to Congress dismissing the National Academy's concerns -- in some rather contradictory terms. He offered that an attack on the pools is extremely unlikely, while arguing that making the National Academy's findings public would jeopardize national security.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who has seen the report, said the commission is playing dirty: "At the same time that the NRC is saying that the National Academy's study is classified and not releasable to the public, it has somehow managed to send a detailed rebuttal of the report's conclusions to Congress in unclassified form. I am concerned that the totality of the Commission's actions reflect a systemic effort to withhold important information from ... the public, rather than a genuine effort to be protective of national security."

The commission may be taking its cues from another interested party: the White House. The Bush administration has long defended the pools' safety, because it sees them as an interim storage plan -- ultimately, it wants the nuclear waste from sites around the country to be consolidated into a massive nuclear dump inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain. On Sunday, conservative columnist George Will agreed, suggesting that Nevadans get used to the idea that nuclear waste has to go somewhere: "America must store nuclear waste more safely, can never prove perfect safety forever, and hence cannot store waste anywhere it will be welcomed."

Will also reassured Nevadans that "the Bush administration says that sound science proves" Yucca Mountain's safety. Nevadans no doubt will want to measure his advice against recent evidence that the government cooked the books on the Yucca project regarding leakage of nuclear waste already discovered at the site.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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