Lessons from Fukushima

Experts look at past nuclear accidents and potential scenarios to identify gaps in understanding nuclear fuel behavior.

Used fuel in a Fukushima cooling pond after the earthquake.
Image courtesy of the MSA EFRC
Used fuel in a Fukushima cooling pond after the earthquake. These images were taken from a video posted 8 May 2011 “Status of the spent fuel pool of unit 4 of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVqfPCsl2AA).

The Science

A critical analysis of the gaps in understanding of nuclear fuel behavior in an accident scenario such as occurred at Japan’s Fukushima Reactor.

The Impact

The inadequate understanding of water interactions with damaged fuel, such as occurred at Fukushima, suggests new research areas to help minimize the impact of future nuclear accidents.


When the editors of Science wanted to highlight to their worldwide audience the gaps in our current understanding of nuclear fuel, recently brought to the fore by the accident at Japan’s Fukushima reactors following the earthquake and resulting tsunami, they turned to three members of the Materials Science of Actinides EFRC (representing Notre Dame, University of Michigan, and University of California-Davis) to provide that expertise. The primary issue these experts point out is that the materials science and chemistry interactions of fuels in an accident scenario (heating, introduction of seawater, etc.) are very complex and not well known. During the Fukushima shutdown and subsequent flooding, this lack of scientific understanding resulted in a number of uncertainties in emergency response decisions. Unknown factors included the corrosion of the fuel, the chemical complexes formed, the rate of gas generation, and other degradation processes. One problem is that existing studies cannot be extrapolated to the conditions of a core-melt incident. Studies of simulated core-melt events and actual damaged fuel are needed to understand the complicated reactions involving radionuclides and the role of nano-scale actinide materials in promoting the breakdown of fuels. An understanding of the factors that determine the release of radionuclides from damaged fuel elements is central to minimizing impacts on the environment and human health.


Peter C. Burns
Director of the Materials Science of Actinides EFRC


DOE Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences, Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC) Program


Burns, Peter C; Ewing, Rodney C.; and Navrotsky, A. “Nuclear fuel in a reactor accident” Science, 335, 1184-1188 (2012). [DOI: 10.1126/science.1211285]

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Materials Science of Actinides EFRC

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Program: BES , EFRCs

Performer: University