Diablo Canyon Power Plant is due to shut down in 2025, maybe earlier, but the radioactive waste it has generated will threaten our lives for another 200,000 years.
Society owns this Pandora's box—but we haven't owned up to the responsibility.
"For 30 years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has kept its head in the sands," U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) said.
To his credit, Carbajal understands the urgency of the nuclear waste problem and has co-signed a bipartisan bill, HR 3035, that he hopes will provide a temporary solution.
Unfortunately, that legislation is seriously flawed. Without amendments or follow-up legislation, the bill threatens huge population centers in the event of likely unavoidable transportation accidents. It also establishes unsafe consolidated waste dumps without mandating a permanent, geological repository.
Having lived in the shadow of Diablo Canyon since 1985, most of us on the Central Coast have become inured to the dangers that lurk there. But even after decades of decay, it takes just a few minutes of exposure for spent fuel rods to deliver a killing dose of radioactivity. According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), "Certain radioactive elements (such as plutonium-239) in 'spent' fuel will remain hazardous to humans and other living beings for hundreds of thousands of years. Other radioisotopes will remain hazardous for millions of years. Thus, these wastes must be shielded for centuries and isolated from the living environment for hundreds of millenia."
"Today, there are 100 reactors operating at 59 sites in the U.S., and 35 permanently shut-down reactors at 25 additional sites," noted Tim Judson, NIRS executive director.
How many tons of highly dangerous waste has accumulated at these sites? "The last reliable estimate was 74,000 tons in 2015—more than the 70,000-ton mandated capacity limit for Yucca Mountain [the stalled U.S. geologic repository located in Nevada]," said Judson.
On average, the industry generates about 2,000 tons of additional irradiated fuel each year, bringing the total tonnage to 80,000 tons.
Just over the hill from San Luis Obispo, approximately 2,200 metric tons of toxic waste is stored onsite at Diablo Canyon. By the time the plant closes, we'll face a 2,690-metric-ton, 200,000-year-long local problem.
No wonder Carbajal has embraced HR 3035, which would authorize mass transportation of waste to parking lot dumps, supposedly "interim" consolidated storage sites—now proposed in Texas and New Mexico. Under the bill, our mountain of waste would become someone else's problem.
Or would it? Why does NIRS, the Union of Concerned Scientists, San Onofre Saftey, Beyond Nuclear, and SLO-based Mothers for Peace, among others, oppose the bill?
First, consider transportation of the world's deadliest waste. Shipments would travel through 45 states, exposing millions of people to murderous radiation in an accident.
And accidents do happen. Amtrak's latest derailment in December sent train cars plummeting onto the interstate in DuPont, Washington. Meanwhile, in 1999, the American Petroleum Institute reported that heavy truck accidents occur approximately six times per million miles. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, in 2015 alone there were 57,313 fatal and injury crashes involving large trucks on our highways. Of those accidents, at least 154 resulted in the release of hazardous material.
Imagine if that hazardous material was radioactive.
OK, but aren't the shipment casks built to withstand accidents?
Nope. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allows U.S. nuclear plants to store or transport spent fuel waste in thin walled welded stainless steel canisters designed to withstand a crash at 30 miles per hour. Do you want to bet lives that they would hold up in a calamity at 80 miles per hour?
Before HR 3053 is approved—and before any more thin-walled canisters are stored at earthquake-prone Diablo Canyon—there needs to be legislation mandating upgraded, thick-walled casks such as those used in Europe and Japan. We should also demand continuous, long-term monitoring and inspection of all transportation containers and/or dry storage casks, whether they're stacked at Diablo Canyon or at consolidated the "interim" sites envisioned in HR 3053.
And let's be honest: The Nuclear Waste Policy Act currently disallows "interim" nuclear waste storage at consolidated sites unless a permanent U.S. geologic repository is built. HR 3053, however, does away with that mandate. Without that leverage—and in light of the enormous political and scientific challenges to establishing a permanent repository—in all likelihood, "interim" will de facto become "permanent."
What to do? Carbajal and his congressional colleagues should listen to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which has testified that "spent fuel can be managed safely at reactor sites for decades, but only if ... the security of dry cask storage is enhanced." UCS told a House committeee last year that interim facilities should not be allowed unless a permanent repository is established. And, finally, the science-based group has called for Congress to fully support the technical work needed to build a safe and secure permanent repository.
Carbajal agrees that HR 3053 is only a temporary fix and that Mothers for Peace and other opponents have legitimate concerns. But we cannot let what he terms a "Sophie's choice" bill to become a pact with the devil.
Carbajal and Congress must address the problems before this legislation goes forward. Because, as Mothers for Peace spokesperson Linda Seeley said, "Diablo Canyon is our baby—a horrible, poisonous monster—but we have to take care of it. It's morally wrong to do otherwise." Δ
Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at.