Residents give NRC an earful over storing Diablo Canyon's spent reactor fuel

Not surprisingly, the idea of storing highly radioactive used reactor fuel at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant for the foreseeable future is not popular with San Luis Obispo County residents.

About 200 people attended a hearing Wednesday in San Luis Obispo to give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission input on the environmental issues surrounding the long-term, possibly indefinite, storage of spent fuel at reactor sites where it was generated.

Jane Swanson, spokeswoman for the anti-nuclear group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, said the waste storage rule does not provide solutions for a problem that will threaten the county for many years.

“They only perpetuate the unjustified assumption that spent fuel can be stored for a quarter of a million years at reactor sites with no serious impact on the environment,” she said.

Fred Collins of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council said his ancestors had lived at the Diablo Canyon site for tens of thousands of years. He considers the fuel repository a violation of the land and environment.

“We, as native peoples, do not give permission for waste to be stored on site,” he said.

The hearing was an opportunity for the public to comment on the NRC’s waste confidence rule, a document that outlines the agency’s generic technical and regulatory policies related to extended storage of spent fuel. The agency is updating an older version of the rule as the result of a court ruling.

Like most nuclear plants in the nation, Diablo Canyon stores its spent fuel in a combination of pools and dry-cask storage containers. Jearl Strickland, Diablo Canyon’s director of nuclear projects, said about one-third of the spent fuel at the plant has been transferred to dry casks.

Plant owner PG&E urges the federal government to take possession of spent fuel from plants as soon as possible for storage in a centralized location, Strickland said. Until then, PG&E believes it can safely store the spent fuel on-site.

Many experts believe that dry casks, which are large steel-and-concrete canisters, are the safer method for storing fuel. Many speakers urged the NRC to require that utilities reduce the density of fuel rods stored in the pools as a safety precaution.

“Starting tomorrow, why don’t you increase the pace of moving the fuel from the pools to the casks?” asked John Geesman, attorney for the San Luis Obispo-based Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.

The issue of spent fuel is timely because the creation of a federally operated centralized spent-fuel storage system is likely decades away. The Obama administration has defunded a project that would have stored the fuel in an underground site at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert.

The White House then appointed a blue-ribbon task force of nuclear experts that concluded that spent fuel could be stored at the plants where it was generated or at a small number of regional storage sites until a permanent solution can be found.

The public has until Dec. 20 to submit written comments to the agency on its spent-fuel rule. The agency is expected to adopt the final updated fuel storage rule late next year.