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What Fukushima Might Have Taught Terrorists

by ACE HOFFMAN

The storage systems for highly radioactive used reactor cores at San Onofre is not “hardened” against anything significant.  There are no active air defenses around it of any sort.  Many people bandy the term “hardened” around — using it five times in one report, for instance.  But there is no legal or industry standard definition of “hardened” nuclear waste storage and if there were, San Onofre surely would not qualify.

What some people are calling “hardened” is merely the necessary gamma shielding made of lead and steel a couple of inches thick, surrounded by a cement overpack that is three to five feet thick.  They are NOT referring to spent fuel storage systems that can endure real-world conditions such as impacts from the turbine shafts of jumbo jet airplanes during accidental crashes or terrorist strikes, followed by the pooling and burning of 35,000 pounds of jet fuel.  San Onofre’s dry cask storage farm is directly under several major airline traffic routes, so either an accident or a hijacking could cause an impact.

Nor are they referring to casks that can survive impacts from molten-metal penetrator bombs or carefully-placed shaped charges.

Truly “hardened” dry cask storage would include, at the very least, grade-level or underground enclosures for each cask, with 20-foot-thick reinforced concrete roofs.  The steel alone would cost billions — and be money well-spent.  There would be earthen berms between EACH cask, and jet-fuel run-off channels.  And don’t do this in an earthquake or tsunami-prone zone.  And not near where people or animals are, or will ever be, although there is always a force which might strike at any moment and which can overcome anything humans might build:  Locations under asteroid impact zones — and who knows where that might be — or on top of sudden volcanoes, or actually straddling an earthquake fault line, and probably a few others no one’s thought of…

Unlikely?  Yes.

Impossible?  Far from it.

What we have now is just shielding from gamma rays.  To be truly “hardened” against realistic potential events, you need much, much more.  And you need to find a way to pay for it.

Forcing nuclear waste producers — the electric utilities — to create properly “hardened” storage — on site or elsewhere –is too expensive to be part of an ongoing, profit-motivated nuclear fuel cycle.  Most of them would have to constantly be purchasing more land.  San Onofre hasn’t got the space, that’s for sure.

But where does one put a “properly” hardened dry cask system?  The only way to know the true size and cost would be to shut down ALL the reactors and stop making more “spent fuel.”  Then, at least the problem would be of a finite (though huge) size.  At that point it might be possible to think logically about what to do with ALL the nuclear waste in the country and on the planet — once and for all.  It won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy.

As a nation, we have done nothing about the growing problem of nuclear waste for 65+ years.  Other nations do a variety of things — wrong things.  America’s managed not to make THAT mistake — and instead, has done as little as possible.  Some nations are following our lead and are storing nuclear waste dangerously on site where it is made, regardless of the growing risk to the local population and to the planet.

As so many have said before me, part of finding a solution requires realizing that no solution will be perfect.   But it’s time to solve the nuclear waste problem for real: Quickly and globally.  I know of only one sure-fire step that must be taken:  Shut down ALL nuclear reactors: Their risks and costs don’t justify their existence.  (“Oh!” — cry the pro-nukers — “What about medical isotopes?!?”  For medical requirements, two dedicated systems — one on either side of the globe — would suffice, and they would not produce nearly as much nuclear waste as a power reactor which only produces medical isotopes as a side business.  Also, many medical procedures which use radioactive isotopes are being replaced with more benign methods, such as ultrasound and MRIs.)

Waiting to solving the nuclear waste problem at some future date is potentially disastrous.  The time for the best, strongest, most robust solution is now, when the waste is by far the most toxic it will ever be.  We’ll still need proper containments for today’s spent fuel waste for hundreds of thousands of years, but even just a few centuries from now the overall radioactivity will be several orders of magnitude less than it is today.  Many long-lived isotopes would still remain, but the short-lived fission products — the dominant radioactive isotopes for the first few hundred years — would exist at a fraction of 1% of their current levels.  If those “short-lived” isotopes get out, a lot of permanent damage could be done to the gene pools of every organism on earth including humans.  So early protection is vital: Robust, “hardened” storage in depopulated areas.  And an absolute stop to the continued operation of these uneconomic, accident-prone death-machines known as nuclear power plants.

In a free market, nuclear power would have died for financial reasons by now.  But that’s not happening fast enough, since various regulatory agencies keep the plants profitable for their owners.  But every day the world continues to use nuclear power, the size of the problem the industry leaves behind increases by about 10 tons nationally and 50 tons globally.  That’s a significant amount, because spent fuel is so difficult, expensive and risky to manage.  The spent fuel dilemma is a massive, hidden global problem.  It’s time to define “hardened storage” properly, in terms that fit the geological as well as the geopolitical realities of today.

When it was announced on June 7th, 2013 that the San Onofre Nuclear “Waste” Generating Station (known as “SONGS” because the waste (W) was ignored) would remain closed permanently (after being shut down since January 31st, 2012), it instantly went from having been a “nuclear power plant” to being one of the largest nuclear waste dumps in America, in terms of the quantity of lethal poisons within its space.  It continues to be one of the most vulnerable targets for terrorists in all the world.

An article in Japan Times says that Fukushima “may provide a blueprint for terrorists” for attacks on operating reactors — since “all you need to do… is to cut off the power.”

It’s not quite that simple:  At Fukushima a contributing factor was that the entire area was in turmoil from the earthquake and tsunami.  But if Japan should be worried about terrorism at nuclear facilities, doesn’t it make sense that we should be, too?  Of course it does.

But in fact, anyone who knew anything about nuclear reactors — which surely included the terrorists — has known all along that cutting off the power to a nuclear facility could cause a meltdown.  That’s why for decades, activists have been trying to demand more robust backup power systems for nuclear facilities!  Such enhancements were always deemed “too expensive” but in light of Fukushima, it clearly would have been worth it to spend the money.

What Fukushima might have taught the terrorists is that it’s the radiation that causes the financial and health problems.  Destroying an operating reactor is one way to cause a radiation release, but attacking spent fuel pools or dry casks can work equally well for the purpose of causing widespread contamination and ensuing havoc, panic, and destruction.

And lest we forget, neither Fukushima nor even Chernobyl were anywhere near a “worst case scenario” for those types of reactors.  The majority of the plutonium and uranium remained — and remains — in seething blobs known as “corium.”  One formation of corium at Chernobyl even has a name: The Elephant’s Foot.  It’s crumbling.  At Fukushima three reactors have turned to “corium.”  The corium blobs ooze massive quantities of radioactive particles constantly, and will continue to do so for decades.  And at both Fukushima and Chernobyl, things can still get far worse, and there’s nothing anyone can do if that starts happening.

Meanwhile, their precarious spent fuel pools remain loaded with fuel, 60 feet above ground level in earthquake-damaged, tsunami-damaged, and explosion-damaged buildings.  All the spent fuel anywhere near the melted-down reactors should be removed from the sites immediately.

But at any site, and at San Onofre in particular, terrorists or Mother Nature can damage a spent fuel pool or a dry cask farm, even if damaging an operating nuclear reactor is theoretically easier.

A dry cask storage farm might have a couple of rent-a-cop security guards overseeing it, who are expected to “call for backup” if anything goes wrong — assuming the phone systems are working.  They are not expected to be able to fend off any significant attack by themselves.

An operating reactor has nearly a thousand people working on site, and all of them are (supposedly) trained to be watching for “anything suspicious.”  There can be double that number of people or more, if it’s a multi-reactor facility.

So which is easier to attack?  Spent fuel nuclear sites can release massive quantities of radioactive poisons, although an operating reactor will also release a lot of very short-lived components with half-lives in the 8-day range or even less.  These short-lived radioactive elements will certainly cause additional panic and suffering among the local populace, but it’s the 30-year half-life components such as strontium and cesium, and the 25,000-year half-life plutonium, which will cause long-term or permanent population displacements and loss of manufacturing, agricultural, and natural resources.  These extremely dangerous isotopes are all stored in copious quantities in dry casks.  (As a rule-of-thumb, radioactive materials are considered dangerous for 10 to 20 half-lives.)

While moving the waste several times is risky and should be avoided, waiting to move the waste to truly hardened, monitored storage, away from population centers, is even more pure folly:  It is a gamble which could result in the catastrophic and sudden loss of tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

For nothing.

Ace Hoffman has been fighting to stop San Onofre for several decades prior to the announcement of its closure.  He is a computer programmer and the author of The Code Killers, a handbook about nuclear issues.

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