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Inviting a nuclear emergency

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The most urgent focus of Japan’s worsening nuclear crisis is the threat from radioactive fuel that has already been used in the Fukushima Daiichi reactors and awaits disposal. In the United States, the nuclear industry has amassed about 70,000 tons of such potentially deadly waste material — and we have nowhere to put it.

U.S. officials’ increasingly dire assessment of the situation in Japan stems largely from the fact that spent fuel rods — which were stored in pools of water to keep them cool — have apparently become uncovered. The material is “cool” only in the relative sense: Once exposed to air, the fuel rods rapidly heat up and release large amounts of radiation.

This is just one of several calamitous system failures at the Fukushima plant, but it is the most immediately perilous. For days, Japanese officials denied that there was any problem with the spent-fuel pools, which are located in the same structures that house the reactors. On Thursday, however, authorities acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and began doing everything they could to address it.

They even used helicopters to scoop up buckets of seawater and try to dump it onto the spent fuel rods in two of the plant’s six reactors. But the rods were giving off so much radiation that chopper pilots, for their own safety, had to release the water from a great height. Almost all of it missed, and the effort was halted after just four passes.

The danger posed by radioactivity from the spent fuel is hampering workers’ efforts to keep Fukushima’s active reactors — filled with much “hotter” fuel — from melting down. It seems obvious that this kind of waste should be taken away and disposed of, if only to give plant operators one less thing to worry about in an emergency.

Yet in the United States, nuclear plants must store their used fuel rods on-site, in pools similar to the ones at Fukushima. A typical plant generates more than 20 tons of such waste material each year, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The fuel rods become less radioactive with time but ultimately must be isolated from the environment for many thousands of years.

U.S. officials have long sought a permanent solution for storing high-level nuclear waste. In 2002, after a long and bitter controversy, Congress designated a Nevada site, Yucca Mountain, as the nation’s permanent nuclear waste repository.

That seemed to be the answer. The spent fuel rods from the nation’s nuclear plants would be shipped to Yucca Mountain and forever entombed. Last year, however, the Obama administration filed a motion to withdraw the Energy Department’s application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to actually create and use the Yucca Mountain repository — thus effectively returning the whole argument to the vicinity of square one.

As practically every Nevada politician, of either party, will be eager to tell you, there are good reasons not to choose Yucca Mountain. It is not as remote as one might like — the Las Vegas metropolitan area is just 100 miles away — and the area is seismically active. While it is true that scientists believe nearby faults could never produce a large enough earthquake to breach a well-constructed repository, it is also true that scientists believed the Fukushima plant would never be hit by a quake of magnitude 9.0 followed by a biblical tsunami.

The Energy Department, aided by a blue-ribbon commission, is conducting a “comprehensive review” of the nuclear waste problem and will eventually come up with a plan. There are alternatives to simply putting all of the stuff inside a mountain — reprocessing, for example.

But one course of action that makes no sense at all is to just let the waste keep piling up at more than 100 nuclear plants across the nation. The chances of a mishap are quite small; the consequences, however, are wholly unthinkable.

This is the problem with the whole nuclear power industry, which employs a technology that is uniquely toxic. The impact of one miscalculation can be felt for a generation, a lifetime, even an eternity.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets it. She told her Parliament that the Japanese crisis made her realize that Germany must make a “measured exit” from nuclear power and “reach the age of renewable energy as soon as possible.”

Merkel temporarily closed seven of Germany’s oldest reactors as a first step. After Japan, “business as usual” is not an option, she said.

No one in Washington seems to be paying attention.

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