Diablo Canyon Power Plant, like many other nuclear plants in the nation, is becoming its own mini Yucca Mountain — a growing repository of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.
For years, the identified solution was to bury the waste in a centralized underground storage facility at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. However, the Obama administration has canceled those plans.
This means that spent fuel stockpiles at places such as Diablo Canyon won’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. This angers many local elected officials who feel betrayed by the federal government.
“This is a terrible burden that we weren’t supposed to and shouldn’t have to bear,” said County Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes Diablo Canyon.
State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, agrees. He describes seismically active San Luis Obispo County as “wholly unsuitable” as a long-term nuclear waste storage site.
“Under no circumstances should the federal government be allowed to turn San Luis Obispo County into a long-term nuclear waste dump,” Blakeslee said.
Both Hill and Blakeslee think the federal government should find some way to compensate power plant communities for the long-term expense of dealing with waste.
In May, the Obama administration took the first tentative steps toward solving the nuclear waste issue. It appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to study the problem and come up with recommendations.
The panel of experts is recommending that one or more interim above-ground storage facilities be established until a permanent underground storage site can be found. A draft report is expected this summer, and final recommendations are due next year.
One of the panel’s members is Per Peterson, chair man of the Nuclear Engineering Department at UC Berkeley. He also sits on the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee.
Not first in line
The first priority for any interim above-ground facility would be to store fuel from decommissioned plants, Peterson said. California has two such plants — one is the Humboldt Bay plant near Eureka, and the other is Rancho Seco near Sacramento.
“It makes sense to focus on the shutdown sites because there is greater ongoing cost for security, and they would give us the opportunity to gain experience moving the fuel,” Peterson said.
Peterson thinks it is unlikely that spent fuel from operating plants such as Diablo Canyon would be sent to an interim facility. Spent fuel is being safely stored onsite at operating plants, and there is likely to be substantial opposition to moving large amounts of highly radioactive fuel.
“For operating reactors, there’s not a lot of logic in moving the spent fuel,” he said.
Blakeslee said interim storage is an option that should be examined.
“It may be necessary to explore interim regional facilities far away from population centers,” he said.
On the other hand, critics of transporting spent nuclear fuel cite the potential danger posed by accidents or terrorist attacks. They also note that creating temporary storage sites means that the waste would have to be transported more than once.
“The waste is currently sitting at zero miles per hour on presumably relatively secure reactor sites,” said Mary Olson, a director with the Office of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nationwide antinuclear group. “Putting it on wheels moving anywhere from 2 to 60 mph outside those gates will not make it safer.”
The commission also said the relocation process should be transparent and consent-based, meaning that local communities should agree to have a storage facility in their midst.
This is recognition that one of the main problems associated with Yucca Mountain was staunch opposition by Nevada residents and politicians, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Critics believe getting local support for an interim facility is unrealistic. Previous centralized storage proposals have triggered strong local opposition, Olson said.
New Yucca needed
With Yucca Mountain off the table, Peterson thinks the country should move expeditiously toward finding another permanent storage facility. Such a facility is necessary because communities considering hosting an interim facility would want assurances that the fuel would not be stored there permanently, he said.
Ideally, the facility would be located deep underground in stable geologic formations, such as clay or granite, which have minimal groundwater movement. Little groundwater movement is important because groundwater is the most likely way contamination from the fuel could be spread.
Another option for some high-level radioactive waste could be deep borehole technology, Peterson said. This would involve placing the waste in holes drilled as deep as three miles into the Earth’s crust in stable rock formations.
This type of irretrievable disposal is best suited for the most dangerous kinds of nuclear waste such as weapons-grade material. Spent fuel from nuclear plants should be kept where it could be accessed in the future if reprocessing ever becomes a viable option, Peterson said.
“The United States is a large country, and we have a wide range of options that can be developed,” Peterson said.
“I have a high degree of confidence that we could be successful in finding both geologic and consolidated storage sites.”
Peterson and the commission as a whole make no recommendations about where interim or permanent storage facilities should be located, nor do they estimate how long the process will take.
Those questions should be answered by the Department of Energy or perhaps a new federal agency established to deal with the spent fuel problem, Peterson said.
Commission’s goals for storing nuclear waste
Draft findings from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future:
Expeditiously establish one or more consolidated interim storage facilities.
Safety risks associated with onsite storage methods are manageable but must be rigorously maintained.
Fuel stored at decommissioned reactors should be “first in line” for transfer to an interim storage facility.
A new integrated national approach is needed to revitalize the nation’s nuclear waste program.
Processes for dealing with spent fuel should be “science-based, consent-based, transparent, phased, adaptive and standards-driven.”
Planning for transporting spent fuel is complex and should start at the beginning of any storage project.
Any storage solution should have access to the Nuclear Waste Fund, which has $24 billion. The fund was established to pay for a centralized nuclear waste storage facility.