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On safeguarding Diablo Canyon radioactive waste

PG&E plans to transfer radioactive waste to vulnerable storage on June 1

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It would be logical to assume that when the second highest court in the nation rules that a federal agency must comply with specific federal laws, that would decide the matter once and for all. Case closed. But in San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace v. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the reality is much different.
 
Since 2002, the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace (MFP) has pursued the legal avenues available to force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to protect the public from potential terrorist attacks on the new dry-cask storage facility at Diablo Canyon. But ironically, even though the NRC and the Department of Homeland Security specify that all nuclear facilities are targets of terrorists, the NRC has repeatedly refused to produce studies of the environmental impacts of an attack on the dry casks.
 
After reaching a dead end with the NRC, MFP took its case to the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which in 2006 agreed with MFP and ordered the NRC to do such a study. In response, the NRC staff produced an abbreviated eight-page environmental assessment that claimed the impacts of even a successful attack would be “insignificant.” The NRC offered no objective data to back its conclusion, and completely ignored the very specific data offered by MFP, showing that a small missile tipped with an explosive could penetrate a cask and ignite its contents. This would lead to a large quantity of radioactive cesium and other contaminants becoming airborne and transported over a broad geographic area. The resulting damage to public health and the environment would cost billions of dollars.
 
In response, MFP Attorney Diane Curran again filed suit in the same federal court, accusing the NRC of illegal secrecy and of refusing to comply with federal law. It will likely be well over a year before the Ninth Circuit Court makes a ruling.
 
In spite of the unresolved legal issues, within days of the publication of this article—on June 1—PG&E plans to begin transferring spent fuel rods out of the crowded pools where the waste has been accumulating for two and a half decades, to eight of the dry casks. Without this transfer, Diablo would have to be shut down, because there is no space for more waste in the two pools. In fact, the pools, which are not covered by the containment domes, are packed well beyond the density for which they were originally designed. With adequate space between the spent fuel rods, even if there were a loss of the borated water that cools down the radioactivity, a fire would be very unlikely. But at the higher density, the NRC and the National Academy of Science recognize that there is a strong possibility of such a fire in the event that an attack, earthquake, or human error caused a loss of the cooling water. And fire would release radioactive particles into the atmosphere to contaminate land and life wherever the wind might blow. Unfortunately, the problem of dense storage will not be resolved by transferring some rods, as those will regularly be replaced by more spent fuel.  Only after the rods have had years to cool down can they be transferred to the casks.
 
MFP is not attempting to stop the use of dry casks at Diablo but does intend to force the NRC to order maximum protection of the casks, especially from air attack. Among the measures MFP has suggested are scattering the casks rather than lining them up in compact rows, putting them under concrete or behind earthen berms, and using the latest and most robust cask design, instead of the model that was available some years ago when PG&E ordered the casks.
 
All of us pay for the NRC as taxpayers, and the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant as ratepayers. In addition, MFP must raise more than $80,000 to pay for the specialized work of our attorney in Washington, D.C., as well as all the paperwork and court expenses intrinsic to a federal lawsuit.

The San Luis Mothers for Peace (MFP) came together 40 years ago, in 1969, in response to a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. The group is local, with membership in the all-volunteer organization open to everyone. The organization’s concerns include the dangers of nuclear power, weapons, and waste on national and global levels. Additionally, MFP takes positions on matters of peace and social justice. Members are motivated by a sense of responsibility for the thousands of future generations that will have to safeguard the radioactive waste from Diablo Canyon and other nuclear facilities. Detailed information about the work of the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace is available on the website mothersforpeace.org.

Jane Swanson, spokesperson for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, has lived in San Luis Obispo since 1967. She has been a member of MFP since its inception in 1969. Contact her via the editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

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