Looking back: Diablo’s moves on fuel disappoint

Nuclear plant has not sped up efforts to put fuel in dry casks

May 19, 2013 

This is one in a series of occasional follow-ups on Tribune opinions. We’ll recap our previous position and update readers on what’s happened since the original editorial was published. If there is an issue you would like us to revisit, email us at letters@thetribunenews.com.

July 17, 2011, editorial headline: “Leaders must make storage of nuclear waste a priority”

What we said then: In the wake of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, some members of the scientific community have joined nuclear watchdog groups in calling for a reduction in the amount of waste stored in pools.

The NRC, which recently offered some preliminary post-Fukushima recommendations, has not called for an acceleration of the transfer of waste out of pools and into dry casks.

We believe that it should.

We aren’t going to suggest that there is a magic number of assemblies — 308 or 414 or 422 — that should be allowed in each pool at Diablo at any given time.

However, we do believe that sealed, concrete-and-steel containers are an inherently safer, long-term home for spent fuel than pools that must be constantly monitored.

What’s happened since: In June 2012, the U.S. Appellate Court in Washington, D.C., struck down the Nuclear Regulation Commission’s “waste confidence rule” — a generic determination that it’s safe to store spent fuel at nuclear power plants over long periods of time.

The court called for more extensive environmental assessments to ensure the safety of on-site storage and in August, the NRC suspended all licensing decisions for nuclear power plants while it conducts that evaluation and prepares a new waste confidence rule.

Meanwhile, several measures have been taken — at Diablo Canyon and at other nuclear power plants — to improve the safety of spent fuel pools.

For example, portable diesel-powered generators have been added to ensure water can be pumped into the pools in the event of apower failure.

Also, additional monitoring equipment has been installed so water levels within the pools can be checked remotely.

We agree that, with these post-Fukushima safeguards in place, spent fuel pools are safer places today than they were two years ago. But we’re not convinced they’re on par with dry cask storage. That’s why we were disappointed to learn that the amount of waste in the pools at Diablo Canyon has not decreased appreciably, though we had reason to believe that PG&E had been contemplating such a move.

In March 2011, Tribune environmental reporter David Sneed asked plant manager Jim Becker whether PG&E would consider accelerating transfer of spent fuel from storage pools to dry casks.

“It’s a great question,” he said then. “We’ll need to study it.”

A few months later, we reported that PG&E did indeed plan to reduce density inside the pools by about 45 percent over the next five years to about 600 assemblies per pool. We commended the utility for taking that step.

But when we recently asked for an update, we found there’s been no accelerated effort to move spent fuel into dry casks.

In 2011, there were about 2,170 spent fuel assemblies in the two pools — 1,072 fuel assemblies in one pool, and 1,104 in the other.

Today, there’s a combined total of 2,116 assemblies in the pools, though that will drop to 1,924 following a transfer scheduled for this summer.

PG&E officials say the rate of reduction we had reported — 45 percent over five years — is not possible. Among other constraints, fuel rods removed from the reactors must cool for a minimum of five years — PG&E allows seven years — before they can be moved to dry storage.

Space also is a factor. PG&E’s dry cask storage facility can accommodate all of the fuel that will be generated through 2025, when its current license expires. But if the utility is granted a 20-year license extension, there won’t be enough room for that fuel in dry storage.

PG&E officials point out that the federal government remains obligated to accept the waste, and when it does, dry casks can be shipped out, freeing up space for more spent fuel.

That’s possible, but frankly, we’ve been hearing that for so long we have low expectations.

For the time being — and until such time as the federal government makes good on its promise to accept spent nuclear fuel — San Luis Obispo County is a de facto spent fuel storage site.

While the likelihood of a catastrophic event is miniscule, given the potential for harm, we continue to believe it makes sense to err on the side of caution. If dry casks are safer by even a slender margin — as many scientists believe — then it’s incumbent upon the NRC to order that every nuclear power plant reduce the density inside its spent fuel pools.

If that means expanding dry cask storage facilities, so be it.

It the NRC truly wants us to have confidence in its new “waste confidence rule,” it will have to convince us that safety — not the bottom line — comes first.

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