Spent fuel at Diablo should be secured

Diablo Canyon’s dry-cask storage is located behind the 5-million-gallon emergency water supply up the hill from the plant.
Diablo Canyon’s dry-cask storage is located behind the 5-million-gallon emergency water supply up the hill from the plant. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The question of what to do with spent fuel from Diablo Canyon and other nuclear power plants should have been settled years ago, with the opening of a permanent federal repository.

But 15 years after the federal government was supposed to begin accepting waste, we’re still waiting. Meanwhile, Diablo Canyon and other plants have become de facto storage sites for spent fuel.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has dealt with the issue by relying on a generic “waste confidence rule.” In effect, the NRC is saying that it’s confident that nuclear waste can be safely stored on sites such as Diablo Canyon until there’s a permanent storage facility.

However, an appeals court struck down portions of that waste confidence rule and directed the NRC to look more closely at the effects of failing to secure a permanent disposal site for nuclear fuel, as well as the potential for spent fuel pool leaks and fires.

The NRC has temporarily suspended issuing new licenses or license extensions while it conducts that review, which includes a series of public hearings throughout the nation, including tonight’s meeting in San Luis Obispo.

Through no fault of PG&E, spent fuel has been accumulating on site — something that was never anticipated when the plant was first licensed, when residents were repeatedly assured that the waste would be safely stored off-site.

Like many other nuclear plants, PG&E has dealt with the waste storage dilemma by packing Diablo’s two spent fuel pools more densely. It’s also moved some fuel into dry casks.

PG&E believes the two methods of storage are equally safe.

However, we believe it’s better to err on the side of caution. We support the position of several scientists and nuclear watchdog groups that believe sealed, concrete-and-steel containers are inherently more secure than pools that must be constantly monitored. The county Board of Supervisors agrees, and it plans to write a letter urging the NRC to ensure spent fuel at Diablo Canyon is moved into dry casks as expeditiously as possible.

While we don’t believe that a Fukushima-type disaster can occur here, we cannot ignore the fact that Diablo Canyon is located in an active earthquake zone, making it even more critical that spent fuel is stored as safely as possible.

We don’t expect that the current series of NRC meetings will bring about any huge change in policy. However, we cannot allow the occasion to pass without calling on commissioners to do everything possible to ensure the safety of our community.

We again urge the NRC to order that every nuclear power plant, including Diablo Canyon, reduce the density inside spent fuel pools by moving fuel into dry casks as soon as possible. And we call on the president and Congress to stop delaying and commit to a plan of action on long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel.


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting will be from 6 to 10 p.m. today at the Courtyard by Marriott, 1605 Calle Joaquin, San Luis Obispo. The first hour will be an open house. The NRC staff will then give a short presentation before taking public comments.