Nuclear plant gets OK to store waste outside

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant sits up against the Pacific Ocean near San Luis Obispo, Calif.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant sits up against the Pacific Ocean near San Luis Obispo, Calif.Phil Klein / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal regulators ruled Thursday that a radioactive waste storage plan can go forward at a California nuclear power plant without further study of whether it's safe from terrorist attacks.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 3-1 to deny the novel objection from the activist group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, which had won a federal court ruling forcing the NRC to consider its arguments.

The decision OKs PG&E's plans to store spent nuclear fuel in aboveground casks at its Diablo Canyon power plant near San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Dry cask storage is increasingly common at nuclear power plants around the country.

Mothers for Peace had contended there wasn't sufficient study of whether the casks planned for Diablo Canyon could withstand potential terrorist attacks while protecting human health and the environment, but the NRC said no more study was needed.

"The NRC staff and PG&E provided essentially uncontradicted evidence that the probability of a significant radioactive release caused by a terrorist attack was low, and that the potential latent health and land contamination effects of the most severe plausible attack would be small," commissioners wrote in their order.

NRC staff studied what they said were plausible attack scenarios that couldn't be made public for national security reasons, and concluded that even the worst-consequence scenario would result in such a low dose of radiation that it wouldn't cause long-term health problems for plant neighbors.

Dissident regulator cites concerns
Commissioner Gregory Jaczko dissented, contending that NRC staff didn't address potential attack scenarios raised by Mothers for Peace and made insufficiently supported assumptions that the probability of a terrorist attack was low.

"Combining this with the fact that the agency's message all along has been 'trust us to have looked at this information that we refuse to give you access to,' I would say the agency is standing on a very weak foundation to reject" the position of Mothers for Peace, Jaczko wrote.

Mothers for Peace spokeswoman Jane Swanson said her group would consider all options for how to respond to the ruling. Citing Jaczko's dissent, she contended that the NRC has yet to fulfill its court-ordered obligations.

"The court ruled that the NRC staff must study the environmental effects of a terrorist attack. The NRC has not complied with that order," Swanson said.

PG&E spokeswoman Sharon Gavin said, "We are pleased with the commission's decision and respect the process that was used to make it, which included input from the public." She said the ruling would allow the company to remain on-schedule to begin moving spent fuel into dry cask storage in 2009.

Following Mothers for Peace's win in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006, the attorneys general of New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts challenged NRC decisions on similar grounds, and those are pending.

The ultimate outcome of the Diablo Canyon case could have broader ramifications for the nuclear power industry, which is anticipating growth as nuclear power attracts more interest as an energy source that doesn't generate greenhouse gas emissions.

Waste is piling up
The industry is hampered by the question of disposal of radioactive waste. A federal permanent underground repository planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has been delayed by cost overruns and political opposition and the Energy Department's best-case opening date is now 2020.

Meanwhile, more than 50,000 tons of spent fuel is piling up at nuclear reactors nationwide. Spent nuclear fuel is in dry storage at 47 power plant sites, a number that's expected to increase to 70 by 2020, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.

Used nuclear fuel rods are first moved into cooling ponds at power plants, and when those fill up, as is happening at Diablo Canyon, they're put in dry cask storage.

The NRC says the casks are designed to withstand severe accidents, such as being hit by an automobile in a tornado. The casks to be used at Diablo Canyon are made of inner and outer carbon steel shells that are filled with 30 inches of concrete and weigh up to 170 tons when fully loaded with spent fuel.