The world has some serious problems to face ahead regarding the plethora of nuclear power plants now in use.
This will be a bit technical and dry for some, but I will try to keep it simple enough for a layperson to get a handle on.
The reactors in the US and around the world are structurally decaying.
The reason for this decay is because the storage ponds have been storing more spent fuel than they were designed to hold. In many instances, this is twenty or thirty times the amount they were originally designed to hold. The containment vessels were designed to withstand a certain level of bombardment of the spent fuel and right now most reactors are exceeding their design capacity and the result is the containment vessels are decaying more rapidly and because many reactors were already built with a "we'll figure that out later" mentality (brilliant, right?) many reactors are going to be compromised a lot faster than anyone ever expected. Our analysis indicates this same structural decay is what caused the pond damage to the Fukushima plants in Japan which are less than 40 years old.
Nuclear reactor engineering is a very precise science - but it is executed with an unacceptable amount of variables. Spent fuel rods release specific quantities of radiation in various environments. In water cooled reactors, heavy water cooled reactors and other special mixes (mercury, liquid metals, etc.) spent fuel releases a fixed quantity of radiation per hour, which now bombards the coolant and has both a specific thermal impact upon the surrounding materials and a whole array of nuclear effects.
In the fifties, materials were tested extensively in regards to how they reacted to radiation and suitable blends of concrete and other elements were used for shielding. You have baryte concrete, a few exotic blends and plain old Portland cement being used most often as the biological barrier. However, with the increase of spent fuel stored in the ponds WAY over the designed and intended use - even the most durable concrete shielding now grows BRITTLE and loses TENSILE strength at a much faster rate due to radiation absorption and heat. This, in a nutshell is the problem with our reactors. They are drowning in spent fuel which is weakening their containment chambers - just like the weakened Fukushima storage pond that cracked during the Earthquake. That reactor and those pools were designed to withstand a 9.0 Earthquake. The fact that it didn't is because the concrete containment chamber had become too brittle over decades of spent fuel storage over the designed capacity and when the tsunami wave hit - it cracked like an eggshell and plutonium and other extremely dangerous contaminants have been seeping out.
Why are the world's reactors drowning in dangerous spent fuel rods? This is because no safe way of transporting them has ever been conducted. All means of transferring a spent fuel unit were failures and had to be abandoned. Somehow, even "radiation proof" chambers could not keep the rods from seeping radiation out onto the trucks and drivers that drove them. Scientifically, the nuclear community couldn't explain and didn't quite understand what was going on and why the radiation was getting out and it was simply too dangerous to keep experimenting with them (and it threatened to generate horrible press because some of this testing went down around the same time as Three Mile Island) so they basically gave up on transport and disposal.
Basically, this is insanity. But we are stuck with it.
Yes, we have created a terrifying situation that the general public wasn't well educated enough to understand. And those in the industry want to keep making money and so everyone tried to ignore it. Well, the cat's out of the bag and we have reactors from coast to coast - including the inactive ones - that are drowning in spent fuel - each and every one are literally Fukushima's in the making.
What's going to happen?
Well, eventually these reactors are going to leak - not just a little bit, but a lot. So we need to maintain a public awareness of the background radiation at varying distances from our nuclear plants (and not just the corporate entities having this information and concealing it - but the public as well) With this info you will quickly know which reactors are already compromised. 50 years from now probably 50 percent of our plants will need containment reinforcement. 100 years from now probably *all* of them will need it because they will be seeping radiation including plutonium and thorium and a host of other nastiness that will have poisoned the ground water tables and much of the surrounding areas. It is quite likely 15-20 percent of our nuclear reactors need retrofitting NOW.
We need the power. We need to keep this nation electrified. But what we really need is a new technology. We will be introducing some new technologies in time for the 2012 election and we will get a candidate elected who will make these things happen. Who will be smart. Who will address the problems and not be afraid to deal with industry.
Don't read this as an assault on the nuclear power industry. The people in charge today inherited this situation - just like the TEPCO workers.
However, now we need to be smart and address it. We need to accept the reactors in place, strengthen and retrofit ones that are seeping radiation and employ people to find new and better ways to contain existing reactors.
The new power technologies coming in the near future will make the US TRILLIONS of dollars and will technologically take the US off of the oil standard. The US will not fall second to China in 15 years. The US will rebuild its infrastructure - which is desperately needed. We will continue to lead the way in technology, architecture - and in quality of life.
We can only do this if we do not sell out our country with poor leadership and corrupt educational systems. We also can't leave our borders open to an uneducated 3rd world country and let our nation bleed to death economically and intellectually.