Nuclear storage: an issue too long on back burner

And unless we push for action, it will stay there

letters@thetribunenews.comMarch 4, 2013 

A worker boards a train car that leads into the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste disposal site in Yucca Mountain, Nev., in 2002. More than a decade later, the site is unlikely to ever open, and President Barack Obama has pulled his support for the project. Does this mean San Luis Obispo County will become a de facto permanent storage site?


The seismic safety of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant continues to be a focus of concern, and rightfully so. We need only look at Fukushima, Japan, to see the devastating consequences when an unexpectedly large earthquake strikes a nuclear power plant.

Just last week, Rep. Lois Capps called on Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison MacFarlane to ensure a thorough, independent review of offshore faults near Diablo Canyon before proceeding with relicensing.

We could not agree more, and we applaud Capps for continuing to stress the issue.

But seismic safety isn’t our only concern. It’s time — past time — for the federal government to enact a plan for long-term storage of nuclear waste, and we look to Capps and other elected leaders to press for that.

Some background: Back in the 1970s and ’80s, PG&E assured the community that it needn’t worry about storage of nuclear waste. The federal government was working to open a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that would be asafe, permanent home for Diablo’s spent fuel.

More than 30 years have passed, and we’re still waiting for that safe, permanent home to appear.

Yucca Mountain is unlikely to ever open; President Barack Obama withdrew support for that facility at the beginning of his first term and appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to look at other solutions.

That commission recommended making “prompt efforts” to develop one or more consolidated nuclear waste storage facilities. It also recommended a new, “consent-based approach” to siting future storage facilities — in other words, communities should be willing to sign on as hosts.

Last month, the Department of Energy issued a strategy to implement the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations. Its goals include:

• Opening a pilot interim storage facility by 2021 that would handle waste from nuclear plants that have already shut down.

• Opening a larger interim facility by 2025.

• Opening a permanent, geologic repository by 2048.

That timetable is contingent, though, on passage of enabling legislation.

One of Congress’ first orders of business is to define what it means for a community to “consent” to hosting a nuclear storage facility.

The report emphasizes why consent is so important: “This Strategy endorses the proposition that prospective host jurisdictions must be recognized as partners. Public trust and confidence is a prerequisite to the success of the overall effort, as is a program that remains stable over many decades; therefore, public perceptions must be addressed regarding the program’s ability to transport, store, and dispose of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in a manner that is protective of the public’s health, safety, and security and protective of the environment.”

We agree that consent is critical.

But what happens if there are no willing host communities? Will San Luis Obispo County and other “reactor communities” become de facto permanent storage sites — with or without our consent?

If that’s the case, will there at least be a process to ensure long-term safety and monitoring of stored waste, and a funding stream to make sure safety measures are followed in perpetuity?

We understand these are back-burner questions for most of the nation. For now, sequestration, immigration, gun control, foreign policy, education, jobs and a host of other issues are more pressing and more important.

And that’s our concern: There always will be something else that takes precedence. It’s been that way for 30 years and, unless reactor communities speak up, it will continue for another 30 years, and 30 years after that. Deadlines will come and go, and nothing will change.

Rep. Capps recently told The Tribune Editorial Board that she would make nuclear waste storage a priority. That’s encouraging. We urge others — including local elected officials, environmental groups, business organizations and of course, PG&E — to join in pressuring the federal government to fulfill its duty.

We’ve waited long enough. The federal government must stop appointing committees, issuing reports and setting deadlines and act.

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