February 17, 2003
Terrorist Threat From Nuclear Spent Fuel Rod Storage

The threat of terrorism makes dealing with nuclear waste storage problems an urgent priority.

space-saving method for storing spent nuclear fuel has dramatically heightened the risk of a catastrophic radiation release in the event of a terrorist attack, according to a study initiated at Princeton.

Terrorists targeting the high-density storage systems used at nuclear power plants throughout the nation could cause contamination problems "significantly worse than those from Chernobyl," the study found.

The study authors, a multi-institutional team of researchers led by Frank von Hippel of Princeton, called on the U.S. Congress to mandate the construction of new facilities to house spent fuel in less risky configurations and estimated a cost of $3.5 billion to $7 billion for the project.

The paper is scheduled to be published in the spring in the journal Science and Global Security.

Strapped for long-term storage options, the nation's 103 nuclear power plants routinely pack four to five times the number of spent fuel rods into water-cooled tanks than the tanks were designed to hold, the authors reported. This high-density configuration is safe when cooled by water, but would likely cause a fire -- with catastrophic results -- if the cooling water leaked. The tanks could be ruptured by a hijacked jet or sabotage, the study contends.

The consequences of such a fire would be the release of a radiation plume that would contaminate eight to 70 times more land than the area affected by the 1986 accident in Chernobyl. The cost of such a disaster would run into the hundreds of billions of dollars, the researchers reported.

Society is going to have to be gradually restructured to adjust for the danger posed by small groups waging asymmetric warfare. Technologies that are inherently less usable by terrorists should be preferred over technologies that are more easily turned against the society that uses them.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 February 17 01:14 AM  Dangers Tech General

John Moore said at February 17, 2003 11:09 AM:

I had an eerie experience a week after 9-11. A novel I was reading (sorry, don't remember the name) had Islamicist fundamentalists hijacking airplanes (in this case, fighter jets) and attacking the waste fuel storage ponds. This book was obviously written before 9-11. Spooky!

Of course, we would have a lot fewer rods in cooling ponds if the environmentalists hadn't obstructed the permanent storage in Yucca Mountain.

I am convinced that nuclear power is an important energy source - especially if it turns out (and I have strong doubts) that anthropogenic global warming is a big problem. But I am likewise convinced we need to treat the plants like military weapons dumps instead of civilian utilities. And we need to go to more inherently safe systems for both reactors and storage, so that simple attacks or mistakes cannot be catastrophic.

I have a page that gives some surprising factoids on radiation effects and nuclear weapons. While devastating, this stuff isn't anywhere near as bad as one educated by the world's press (or the US educational system) might think.

Check out this page.

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