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Nuclear regulatory agency shares spent fuel concerns

San Luis Obispo County is one of 65 communities in the nation that faces a daunting reality. For the foreseeable future — possibly hundreds of years — it will be a storage site for highly radioactive used fuel from a commercial nuclear power plant.

On Thursday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held an “early outreach” hearing in San Luis Obispo to discuss how the federal agency plans to safely and securely deal with that reality and also to get public feedback. It was one of only three such meetings this month the agency is holding nationwide.

As is typical when the NRC holds a public meeting in San Luis Obispo, it got an earful. San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill started it off by saying that concerns about waste storage at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is one issue that unites his pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear constituents.

“It’s an awful legacy to hand off to later generations,” he said.

After years of controversy and technical problems, the Obama administration has canceled plans to build a permanent underground nuclear storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. A blue-ribbon task force was convened last year to determine alternative storage options.

The task force recommends continuing to store the waste onsite at the power plants where it was created or storing it in a small number of regional above-ground facilities until a permanent solution is found. Permanent options include underground storage at a different location or repossessing the used fuel into new fuel.

“Extended onsite storage is a very real possibility,” said Jack Davis with the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards.

NRC officials told an audience of about 50 members of the public Thursday that the agency is examining the technical issues of storing and transporting nuclear waste for extended periods of time. For planning purposes, the NRC is looking at the possibility of storing waste onsite for as long as 300 years after a power plant shuts down.

Technical issues to be examined include the ability of the dry casks to absorb heat and withstand corrosion, and natural external forces such as floods and earthquakes.

Nuclear waste storage at Diablo Canyon is typical of the industry. Used reactor assemblies are initially stored in cooling pools and later in large steel-and-concrete canisters.

Dry-cask storage is considered a safer method for long-term storage. The NRC licenses dry-cask facilities initially for 20 years followed by 40-year renewal increments.

Several people urged the NRC to accelerate transfer of used fuel from the pools to dry casks as a safety measure. Like many plants, Diablo Canyon’s spent fuel pools are near their maximum storage capacity.

The NRC and nuclear industry have resisted accelerated transfer due to the cost and the need to load a combination of older and newer spent fuel in each cask. Klaus Schumann of Paso Robles said the problem of the fuel’s age could be overcome by loading fewer assemblies per cask or using casks that are more heat resistant.

The NRC expects to complete the process of updating its long-term waste storage and transportation policies in 2018.

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