What's the plan for long-term storage of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants? There isn't one -- yet

  • Posted on 5 August 2016
  • By Glenn Pascall

The now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in San Diego County. 
Credit: Luke Jones/Wikimedia


After more than 30 years of non-action, the federal government’s unmet promise of safe, remote long-term storage of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants is showing signs of movement.

This year the U.S. Department of Energy is holding a series of meetings around the country on two linked concepts that represent the first new thinking on the issue in decades. "Consent-based siting" would require nuclear waste storage to be located only in areas where “host communities” agree to a set of incentives and protections. "Consolidated interim storage" would be explored as a companion, not a substitute, for long-term storage.

Southern California was left off Energy's original list of public meeting sites but pressure from local activists and elected representatives changed that.  On June 22, John Kotek, Energy's Undersecretary of Energy for Nuclear Waste Management came to our region for an unscheduled addition to the agency road show. Kotek was joined by Dr. Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Six hours of discussion began with a small group meeting at which the Angeles Chapter was represented by Senior Chapter Director George Watland, San Onofre Task Force Research Director Marni Magda, and myself as Task Force Chair. Ours was the largest contingent from any group at this by-invitation-only event.

“The goal is to implement an integrated waste management system that would clear waste from shut-down plants,” Kotek said. In one significant exchange, Watland observed: “It is important to be sure interim storage does not get disconnected from long term storage” (a Sierra Club goal since 1983); Kotek replied, “I couldn’t agree more, Interim storage must be connected to a repository.”

A push for new federal agency

Kotek and Macfarlane noted that “nuclear waste management is still a low priority within the government.” To correct this, they advocate creation of a federal agency that has all powers related to this mission, and no mission other than this. Such an agency would relate to “self-selected” communities as potential locations for permanent repositories as well as interim storage. Proposals would need to pass muster on the safety of both the site location and the operating plan for storage of waste.

A notable presentation at the general session came from Jack Edlow, CEO of an international firm whose sole business is transport of radioactive materials to safe storage. A prime concern about remote storage is that communities along the route would seek to block transport of waste to such sites. Edlow’s response is that such transport is already routine but is unknown to the public because it involves military waste whose movement is known only to “first responders” -- police and fire -- and to governors’ offices in states along the route.

Edlow reported such movements follow proven and carefully regulated procedures and have a perfect record in preventing any release of radioactive material in transport. With regard to San Onofre, Edlow said, “As shipments go, those from this site would not be particularly difficult.” A transport plan and a security plan could be developed within six months. Waste would be moved by rail or water depending on destination. To be moved, spent fuel in canisters would be placed in “over-packs and impact limiters.” 

Waste cannot be transported off-site directly from fuel pools but only from dry storage. Tom Palmisano, Southern California Edison’s lead on shutting down San Onofre, reported that the dry storage facility will be completed before 2018, and all fuel will be moved from pools before 2020.In the words of San Onofre Community Engagement Panel Chair David Victor: “The decommissioning process has moved quickly toward dry storage. Beyond that point, nothing further happens until there is off-site storage.”

Michael Bosse, Sierra Club Deputy National Program Director, says, “Things have moved with incredible speed at San Onofre.” The combination of renewed efforts to identify remote storage sites, rapid progress at San Onofre in storing fuel waste in a form that can be moved, and proven transport methods adds up to a promising picture. 

Flaw in the dry storage plan

But there is a major roadblock to implementing this scenario.

Spent nuclear fuel in dry storage from Units 2 and 3 at San Onofre would be be ready to move in 2021, while Unit 1 fuel must wait 2031 because it is stored in canisters that take longer to cool. But neither event can occur on schedule unless the law is changed. 

A “standard contract” covering all nuclear plants says the oldest spent nuclear fuel storage sites have priority for waste removal once the DOE has a place to take it. There are 13 decommissioned sites where stored fuel is "stranded" and no longer is protected to the same level of defense-in-depth as an active plant. Stranded fuel near large populations and in sensitive areas such as seismic zones and seacoasts has no priority. The current longevity-based queue for nuclear utilities places San Onofre in line for waste removal from 2035 to 2049.  

Rob Ogelsby, director of the California Energy Commission, told the meeting, “We support dry storage and we believe coastal states should have priority for waste removal.” He was joined by U.S. Rep Darrell Issa (R-49th District), who said, “It is time to move to interim storage, not to preclude a permanent site but to allow removal of waste on behalf of a safe oceanfront.” Kotek noted that in 2012, interim storage ranked at the top among eight recommendations from the national Blue Ribbon Panel on America’s Nuclear Future.

“The action on this issue is now at the federal level,” observes Angeles Chapter Director George Watland. Congress needs to amend laws to fund the process of identifying any type of consent-based remote storage locations, and to give priority to waste removal from sites that pose risks to populations and the environment. Working with the National Sierra Club, these will be Angeles Chapter priorities in the coming months. As former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Allison Macfarlane said in concluding words to the June 22 meeting, “It is our ethical responsibility to solve this problem and not leave it to future generations.”

Glenn Pascall is chair of the Chapter's San Onofre Tast Force. You can reach him at gpascall@att.net

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