Editorial: Leaders must make storage of nuclear waste a priority

Is Yucca Mountain on again? As reported last week, the U.S. House of Representatives allocated an additional $10 million to review a license application for the embattled nuclear waste storage facility — despite the Obama administration’s efforts to kill the project.

We won’t hold our breath, not after the decades of time and oodles of money — $15 billion and counting — that have been poured into this project with so little to show for it.

Meanwhile, as the federal government has dithered, nuclear power plants like Diablo Canyon have been forced to fend for themselves, and communities like ours have come to the realization that spent, radioactive fuel will be stored here much, much longer than we were led to believe.

At Diablo, two spent fuel pools originally designed to hold a maximum of 270 assemblies each were modified — with the blessing of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency — to accommodate as many as 1,324 each. Diablo also added a dry cask storage facility for some of the older spent fuel — again, something that was never anticipated when the plant was in the planning stage.

In the wake of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, the safety of spent fuel pools is being re-examined.

As Tribune environmental writer David Sneed recently reported, some members of the scientific community have joined nuclear watchdog groups in calling for a reduction in the amount of waste stored in pools.

They believe pools are far more vulnerable to acts of terrorism than dry casks. They also point out that, should water drain out of the pools, the risk of fire — and release of radioactivity — is much greater if spent fuel is densely packed inside pools.

The nuclear industry — including PG&E officials — insists the two methods of storage are equally safe.

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.

That said, we recognize there are limitations that restrict how quickly fuel can be transferred from pools to dry casks. For one, manufacturers would have a tough time keeping up with the increased demand if all nuclear plants in the nation were ordered to quickly switch to dry casks.

But if safety is truly at issue — and we believe it is — such hurdles can and should be overcome as quickly as possible.

To its credit, PG&E is expediting the transfer of some of its spent fuel. In fact, it’s renegotiating a contract with its supplier to speed up delivery of some dry casks.

However, that doesn’t allay our concerns about long-term storage, especially in light of PG&E’s request for a license renewal that would allow the plant an additional 20 years, beyond its current 40-year operating permit.

What will happen to that additional spent fuel?

Will it be stored in pools, and if so, for how long?

And if we are to be even a semipermanent home to a dry cask storage facility, what assurances do we have that those casks will be safely maintained and monitored over time?

Again, we have to be prepared for the possibility that a permanent storage facility may never open — at least not in our lifetimes — despite billions of taxpayer dollars poured into the project.

The federal government has so far failed us with Yucca Mountain. The least it can do is take steps to assure us that any nuclear fuel stored at Diablo Canyon will remain safe and secure for as long as it remains there.