* Open-air pools for spent fuel could release radiation
* Many U.S. nuclear power plants have similar design
WASHINGTON, March 18 - Dangerous radiation has the potential of spewing uncontrollably from open-air pools storing spent nuclear fuel at Japan's crippled Fukushima power plant, according to a U.S. expert.
About one-third of U.S. nuclear facilities are designed in the same way, said Robert Alvarez, a senior U.S. Department of Energy official during the Clinton administration.
"If you look at the photos" of the Fukushima Daiichi facility in northeastern Japan, "you see at least two pools are exposed to the open sky," Alvarez said.
One of the immediate problems facing Japan is the cooling water in the pools may already have drained partially or completely. When spent fuel rods are exposed to the air they can easily catch fire, raising a deadly mix of radiation into the atmosphere.
One week ago, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan, followed by a powerful tsunami that swept ashore, killing thousands and displacing nearly 500,000 people.
The back-to-back disasters severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi plant and so far, attempts to secure the facility have failed.
The spent fuel was moved from the plant's reactors to storage pools only a year ago, "which means relative to its radioactive decay it's still what we call fresh fuel and gives off quite a bit of heat as it decays," said Alvarez, now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
He spoke to reporters at a news conference sponsored by the institute, Friends of the Earth and Physicians for Social Responsibility, which have advocated for more use of sustainable energy sources, such as wind, solar and hydroelectric power.
Alvarez said the storage pools, elevated several stories above ground and not in a containment dome like the nuclear reactors themselves, have the potential of putting "significant amounts of cesium 137," a byproduct of nuclear fission, into the open air.
Cancer-causing Cesium 137, he added, "is the really bad actor in this" with its ability to emit penetrating radiation over long periods.
Of 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, Alvarez said, 34 are of the same design -- open-air, elevated storage pools -- as the Fukushima plant.
MORE SPENT FUEL IN U.S. POOLS
But the U.S. pools are storing much more spent fuel than the ones in Fukushima and "are currently holding, on the average, four times more than their design intended," he said.
That's because the United States has been unable to settle on long-term sites for storing waste from nuclear power plants.
Nearly a decade ago, Alvarez said, he began warning the United States about the need to pay more attention to risks at the open-air storage pools.
Peter Bradford, a former commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said questions have been raised for years about whether spent fuel is being safely stored at U.S. power plants.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission pretty bluntly shunted those questions aside," Bradford told Reuters Insider TV. Bradford said the commission even tried to prevent the publication of a study of the issue completed by the National Academy of Sciences.
"That kind of complacency, the sense that everything is good enough already, is very unlikely to persist in the wake of these events" in Japan, said Bradford, who is now an adjunct professor at the Vermont Law School.
He served on the NRC during the 1979 partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. "In terms of severity, this accident (in Japan) left Three Mile Island in the rear-view mirror several days ago," Bradford said at the news conference with Alvarez.
Bradford speculated that the disaster in Japan will make efforts to expand nuclear energy in the United States "dead for now."