Why are the National Academy of Sciences and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission arguing about nuclear power plant safety?

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Let’s take a trip back in time to the magical summer of 2004. The American people fell in love with Shrek all over again. The Black Eyed Peas led an inspiring nationwide effort that, after decades of inertia, finally got it started in here. Swift Boat veterans told the truth. And in Washington, D.C., the National Academy of Sciences produced a classified report on the safety of U.S. nuclear power facilities.

What did the report say? Well, I’ve heard that there’s a passage in there that says something like, “Andisheh Nouraee is the awesomest newspaper columnist in the world, the nation can count on him in times of crisis, and he’s a tiger in the sack.” Like I said, though, the report is classified. We’ll never know exactly what it says about me.

An arguably more important point that the report supposedly made was that the nuclear power industry’s practice of storing radioactive fuel rods in pools of water next to the reactors poses a terrorism-related safety risk.

When the fuel rods that power a nuclear reactor are used up, they are still radioactive and highly toxic. Instead of throwing the rods away or using them as neat, glow-in-the-dark paperweights, reactor operators typically put the spent fuel rods in pools of water located next to the reactors. The nuclear pools are just like regular swimming pools, except there’s no chlorine, no pee, and violating the “No Horseplay” rule is a felony. They’re 45 feet deep and filled with about 100,000 gallons of circulating water. The water cools the fuel rods and keeps radiation from escaping into the atmosphere.

The National Academy of Sciences report raises the concern that many of the storage pools at our nation’s 64 active nuclear power plants are vulnerable to a 9/11-style air attack. The nightmare scenario is this: Terrorists fly a fuel-laden aircraft into one of the pools. The fire and impact-damaged pool drains, and more radioactive contamination is released into the air than would be by several Chernobyls. Thousands of people die and hundreds of thousands are forced to evacuate their homes, perhaps forever.

To reduce the likelihood of that happening, the NAS would like to see the fuel rods stored in huge concrete and lead containers called dry casks. Twenty-five U.S. power plants store at least some of their spent fuel in dry casks already. The NAS thinks that dry casks are less vulnerable to air attack; they also can eventually be shipped to the planned national nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The nuclear energy industry disagrees, though. They insist that pools are just as safe as dry casks. That keeping the spent fuel in pools would cost the nuclear energy industry much less than keeping them in dry casks is, of course, just a pleasant coincidence.

Where does the argument with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission come in? Well, the commission has not only classified the report (only certain congressmen and Department of Homeland Security types can see it), but it also has refused to allow the NAS to release a watered-down, public version of the report, which the commission usually does allow when reporting on sensitive matters.

The NAS might not have minded that as much if Commission Chairman Dr. Nils Diaz didn’t then send a letter to Congress on March 14 that, according to NAS Executive Officer E. William Colgaizer, presented “an incomplete, and consequently, less than accurate description of what our classified report had to say.”

It turns out that Diaz (a Bush appointee) and the commission (a twig on the executive branch) support the nuclear energy industry’s position that pool storage is every bit as safe as dry casking. Critics in Congress and annoyed NAS members see the commission’s suppression of the report, combined with its dubious March 14 letter to Congress, as another example of the Bush administration kowtowing to the energy industry.

The nonpartisan and normally sedate NAS is so ticked off, in fact, that the academy has taken the unusual (for it, anyway) step of publicly criticizing the commission and the nuclear energy industry for trying to suppress its findings. The NAS’ actions have made the commission now look crooked and ineffectual. Call it Revenge of the Nerds 5.