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.
The study builds in large part on analyses already done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, pulling together disparate sources and adding new calculations to put the issues in sharper focus, said von Hippel.
"The NRC has been chewing on this for 20 years," said von Hippel. "That's one of the reasons why we did this paper -- because they never seem to do anything about it."