Viewpoint

Spent fuel safe at Diablo, but belongs in federal hands

November 27, 2013 

Community members recently shared their input with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on a policy regarding the long-term storage of spent fuel at the nation’s nuclear power plants. How this fuel is managed is an important issue to discuss because nuclear energy plays a critical role in fulfilling our need for safe, emissions-free power.

Here in California, Diablo Canyon Power Plant generates enough electricity for more than 3 million people. Its zero-emissions attribute is a key reason why Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers receive some of the cleanest electricity in the nation. And in a state that is setting the standard in addressing climate change, Diablo Canyon will continue to be a major factor in achieving a clean energy future.

During the NRC’s Nov. 20 meeting, numerous views on the topic of spent fuel management were provided, adding to the material the NRC is considering as it finalizes its storage policy. As the owner and operator of Diablo Canyon, PG&E also participated, sharing how we safely manage spent fuel and answering community questions about the process.

A common goal has become clear in these discussions — that the federal government needs to move forward on a national fuel storage solution. When Diablo Canyon and other nuclear power plants around the country were proposed, the government promised that a national repository would be established. Unfortunately, politics and changing agendas have resulted in delay. It’s time for that to change.

We’re pleased that new efforts are underway in Congress to push the federal government to act. And until a long-term solution is established, PG&E will continue our work to safely and responsibly store the fuel at Diablo Canyon.

Safely managing the fuel on-site includes two methods, known as wet and dry storage. The wet storage method involves placing a fuel assembly in one of two pools after it is no longer needed in generating electricity. These secure, robust, concrete and steel-lined structures are anchored into bedrock and designed to withstand extreme events such as earthquakes. Multiple safety systems ensure cooling is continuously provided. When a fuel assembly has sufficiently cooled and is no longer needed in a pool, it is transferred to a dry cask storage system to await delivery to the federal government.

Over the years, there has been much study on the safety of both storage methods — and rightfully so. The NRC has found that pools and dry cask containers are safe storage methods for the fuel used at Diablo Canyon and other similar facilities. The NRC has also found no safety or security reason to mandate an earlier transfer of fuel from pools to dry casks.

In fact, the safety of the wet storage system was tested during the 2011 Fukushima tragedy in Japan. Despite the strongest earthquake in modern Japanese history and a tsunami estimated at 45 feet in height, all seven fuel pools at the site remained intact and the spent fuel in the pools remained safely covered with cooling water. As I personally observed in a visit to Fukushima in September, the ability of the pools to withstand such extreme events validated the effectiveness of the design.

While the capability to safely store fuel on-site is proven, it should not serve as a reason for the government to further delay fulfilling its obligation to take ownership of it. Managing fuel long-term is a federal responsibility, and we urge members of the community to join us in calling for the government to act.

The NRC is accepting public comments on the NRC’s long-term spent fuel storage policy through Dec. 20. Information on how to submit comments can be found at www.nrc.gov  .

Ed Halpin is the Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

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