Responding to concerns that radioactive waste at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant presents an ongoing safety risk until the federal government can decide on a solution for long-term off-site storage, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to send a letter to the state’s federal Senate and congressional representatives asking them to do just that—and quickly.
A federal repository for spent fuel from the country’s nuclear plants has been stalled since the Obama Administration de-funded a proposed project at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2010. No other alternative has been officially proposed, but in January 2012, a Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of the nuclear industry released a set of recommendations to the Secretary of Energy supporting 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.
But that hasn’t happened yet, and the wait has been making communities near nuclear plants—and local government officials elected to represent them—nervous.
Diablo Canyon stores its spent fuel in cooling pools inside the plant as well as in above-ground, helium-filled, 7 1/2-foot thick concrete and steel-reinforced canisters known as dry casks.
The county has no jurisdiction over nuclear issues; that’s the responsibility of the federal government, which relies partly on its regulating agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, the failure of the Yucca Mountain facility is viewed by some observers as a political and planning issue.
Though many residents who spoke before the board agreed that PG&E is doing what it can to safely store the spent fuel, nearly everyone lamented that the federal government needs to work quickly to address a potential problem that will linger for generations.
Members of SLO County Mothers for Peace also argued that spent fuel stored in pools inside the power plant presented the greatest risk to safety, given what occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan following a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. They urged a quicker transition of waste to dry casks.
However, PG&E representatives confidently contend that both methods of storage—spent fuel pools and dry casks—are safe in the case of a seismic event.
“The two onsite storage methods we use at Diablo Canyon are safe and effective and follow the best practices and have been approved and continually monitored by the NRC,” PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones told New Times after the meeting.
In regard to concerns raised specifically about spent fuel pools, Jones said the use of internal pools is a “safe, proven, and effective” method employed in plants around the world.
The utility’s assessment jives with a recent report published by its federal regulator in October that assessed the safety of both methods in response to concerns raised by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as well as the Fukushima disaster. The NRC report found that storage of spent fuel in high-density pools “is safe and that the risk to public health and safety from a [spent fuel pool] accident is very low.”
The public will also have a chance to voice comments and concerns regarding long-term spent fuel storage on Nov. 20, when the NRC will hold an open house from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Courtyard by Marriott, at 1605 Calle Joaquin Road in San Luis Obispo.