The Overlooked Back End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

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Science  02 Sep 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6047, pp. 1225-1226
DOI: 10.1126/science.1207054

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On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and associated tsunami knocked out all power systems at the Fukushima Dai'ichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Light-water reactors, the predominant type in Japan, the United States, France, and a number of other countries, use water to cool both the reactor core and the spent fuel pools; if active cooling is lost, the irradiated fuel heats the water beyond the boiling point. The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents provided firsthand experience of what the loss of coolant can do to the core of a reactor. In addition to core damage, the Fukushima accident has brought into focus the dangers posed by spent fuel pools and has underscored the need to have a well-managed, working back end to the nuclear fuel cycle.