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A federal court rebuffs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on waste storage plans

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Highly toxic, supremely radioactive, and long-lasting nuclear waste must not be stored on-site indefinitely after a nuclear power plant goes off-line, a federal appeals court recently ruled.

DO YOU HAVE TO LET IT LINGER? :  A ruling in an appellate case based out of New York might dictate how long nuclear waste is stored at nuclear power plants—including Diablo Canyon—in above-ground, dry casks long after a plant has gone off-line. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • DO YOU HAVE TO LET IT LINGER? : A ruling in an appellate case based out of New York might dictate how long nuclear waste is stored at nuclear power plants—including Diablo Canyon—in above-ground, dry casks long after a plant has gone off-line.

In what’s being interpreted by experts as a game-changer for the nuclear industry on a national scale, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on June 8 that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must do better than its current “Waste Confidence” plan to store spent fuel onsite for “at least 60 years” after a plant has been decommissioned.

In its unanimous decision, the three-judge panel ruled that the NRC has never fully addressed the long-term storage question, and efforts to do so have dragged on for decades.

“[In] concluding that permanent storage will be available ‘when necessary,’ the Commission did not calculate the environmental effects of failing to secure permanent storage—a possibility that cannot be ignored,” the ruling reads.

The court further said that the agency also failed to examine other “future dangers and key consequences” that could arise from its onsite storage, which it accused the NRC of “optimistically” labeling as temporary.

At the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, fuel used to power the two reactors is cooled and then sealed in above-ground, helium-filled, 7 1/2-foot thick concrete and steel-reinforced canisters known as dry casks.

The recent ruling comes as a vindication for local groups calling for a reliable solution to accumulating waste beyond onsite dry casks. David Weisman, spokesperson for the ratepayer advocacy group the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, told New Times that the organization called for just that when the NRC came to San Luis Obispo in October 2011.

“The NRC’s ‘confidence’ in permitting and licensing various critical nuclear reactor components such as steam generators and reactor vessel heads … was flawed,” the alliance said in a prepared statement. “How can ratepayers know that the dry storage waste systems won’t meet a similar fate with premature failures requiring costly repair, replacement, or remediation for any damage they might cause to the external environments?”

Jane Swanson, spokesperson for the anti-nuclear coalition SLO Mothers for Peace, said in a written statement: “For the past 39 years, the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace has been asking the same question of the NRC: ‘Where are you going to store the waste?’ And for 39 years, the NRC has given us the same answer: ‘Trust us. We will have a long-term repository when it is needed.’ Now the [court] has spelled out why that trust is not justified, and finally ordered the NRC to deal with the issue.”

The NRC has until late July to file a response to the decision. It also has the option to request another hearing.

Victor Dricks, the NRC spokesman for the region that includes Diablo Canyon, told New Times the agency has absolutely no comment on the court’s decision or how it might affect the NRC’s plans to deal with spent nuclear fuel. Dricks said there won’t likely be another peep from the NRC on the issue until its attorneys have finished reviewing the ruling. He declined to offer further details.

Pacific Gas & Electric—though its hands are tied by the NRC—was at least willing to discuss the issue.  The utility remains confident with its dry cask system and quietly disputed the court’s ruling. But PG&E is waiting to see how political debate plays out during this election year.

“We believe the NRC supported its findings in the [appellate case] and I understand that [the NRC is] still determining how to proceed following the court’s order,” PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones said.

“But the issue really underscores the need for the federal government to take action and implement a long-term policy for storing spent fuel,” he added. “To that end, we are encouraged by recent efforts of Congress to implement the Blue Ribbon [Commission’s] recommendations for spent fuel policy.”

In January, a Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of the nuclear industry released a set of recommendations to the U.S. Secretary of Energy for safe long-term storage of the waste.

The report noted that the Obama Administration’s decision to halt the development of a federal nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a good indicator of its lack of a plan for what to do with accumulating waste while it simultaneously supports increased investment in nuclear energy. The commission supported the continued development of such a facility.

It also recommended the formation of a new government body independent of the Department of Energy dedicated solely to dealing with spent fuel.

Last week, SLO Mothers for Peace joined roughly 20 other groups across the nation in signing a petition in response to the June 8 ruling, asking the NRC to hold off on renewing any of the nation’s nuclear plants until the agency has a better plan for storing its radioactive muck.

PG&E is currently seeking to extend the life of Diablo’s two reactors, which are set to expire in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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