Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi report in the New York Times today:
Years of procrastination in deciding on long-term disposal of highly radioactive fuel rods from nuclear reactors are now coming back to haunt Japanese authorities as they try to control fires and explosions at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Some countries have tried to limit the number of spent fuel rods that accumulate at nuclear power plants: Germany stores them in costly casks, for example, while China sends them to a desert storage compound in the western province of Gansu. But Japan, like the United States, has kept ever-larger numbers of spent fuel rods in temporary storage pools at the power plants, where they can be guarded with the same security provided for the plants.
Now those temporary pools are proving the power plant’s Achilles’ heel, with the water in the pools either boiling away or leaking out of their containments, and efforts to add more water having gone awry. While spent fuel rods generate significantly less heat than newer ones do, there are strong indications that some fuel rods have begun to melt and release extremely high levels of radiation.
The reason why the United States stores spent fuel rods on site is because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been able to block building the Yucca Mountain nuclear depository in Nevada for years. In 2009, President Barack Obama cancelled Yucca Mountain entirely.
Senator Reid and President Obama may now want to reconsider their opposition to Yucca Mountain or explain why taking an obvious step to avoid a nuclear disaster like Japan’s isn’t really necessary.