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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on November 26th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 38 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 38

The confidence game: SLO County has little faith in the federal government's plan to handle nuclear waste


Dry casks—as pictured here at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant—are the preferred storage option for uber-toxic spent fuel. That is, unless the federal government follows through with its pledge to come up with a long-term receptacle for the stuff. And that’s what it seems everyone in SLO County wants, including Pacific Gas & Electric.

When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission comes to town, four things can be certain.

First, the federal agency—or at least its press people—are going to get an earful, but still they’ll nod politely.

Second, hours of public comment will be “accepted” for whatever report the NRC is pitching at the moment and end up in a couple-page summary at the end of said report.

Third, those people whose input will be “accepted” will include either the same old characters opposed to Diablo Canyon, or PG&E employees “not speaking on behalf of PG&E,” or attractive young “clean energy” advocates speaking in support of nuclear energy who plum forget to disclose that they’re being paid to be there by the nuclear industry.

And at the end, everyone will go home feeling as if they just wasted their time.

The night of Nov. 20 was no different. Some 300-plus people packed into a banquet room at the Courtyard at Marriot in San Luis Obispo that had an occupancy limit of 175. But that was OK, because it was a night that saw the first decent rain of the season. Drivers suddenly forgot how to drive, parking lots filled up, and tree limbs targeted power lines as they fell. Just hours before the meeting—which had to be switched from the larger-capacity Embassy Suites to the aforementioned Marriot because of a rescheduling due to the recent government shutdown—one such kamikaze tree limb knocked out power at the hotel just before a meeting on public “confidence” was scheduled.

Better believe Pacific Gas & Electric was on the case in a heartbeat.

The meeting was set to begin at 7 p.m. following an hour-long meet-and-greet with NRC and PG&E officials. The power was restored at about 6:15 p.m.

The night’s purpose was to welcome public input on an upcoming NRC “Waste Confidence Rule” and its accompanying draft generic environmental impact statement, a document that outlines the agency’s basic policy of storing spent fuel long-term and the expected impacts of storing that fuel, on a number of environmental categories.

The agency adopted its original waste confidence rule back in 1984, and it was updated in 2010, but that update was ultimately abandoned after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in June 2012 that the NRC must do better than its current plan to store spent fuel onsite for “at least 60 years” after a plant has been decommissioned.

In its unanimous decision, the three-judge panel ruled that the NRC had never fully addressed the long-term storage question: “[In] concluding that permanent storage will be available ‘when necessary,’ the Commission did not calculate the environmental effects of failing to secure permanent storage—a possibility that cannot be ignored,” the ruling reads.

The NRC is now reworking that rule working to update its existing version due to an appellate court ruling.

In September, the agency released its “Waste Confidence Generic Environmental Impact Statement,” the first draft of the report; the final draft is due to be released in August 2014.

In the report, the NRC found that it’s “feasible” to “safely store spent nuclear fuel following licensed life for [the] operation of a reactor,” and “have a mined geologic repository within 60 years following the licensed life for operation of a reactor.”

At Diablo Canyon, spent fuel is currently stored either within a wet, spent-fuel pool inside the plant, or cooled and then sealed in above-ground, helium-filled, 7 1/2-foot thick concrete and steel-reinforced canisters known as dry casks.

Of the 19 categories of potential impacts—things such as socioeconomics, air quality, and historic and cultural resources—within the GEIS, the NRC found that its plans for both short- and long-term storage of nuclear waste at the plant (absent a federal long-term solution such as the abandoned Yucca Mountain facility) to nearly all be “safe” or have a “small to moderate” impact on the categories.

“The analysis supports the Commission’s determinations that it is feasible to: safely store spent nuclear fuel following licensed life for operation of a reactor, [and] have a mined geologic repository within 60 years following the licensed life for operation of a reactor,” read the NRC’s summary power point presentation.

Those findings didn’t inspire much confidence among the majority of residents in attendance.

“These reports are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Scrap ’em,” SLO Mothers for Peace president Jane Swanson said.

“What’s the track record of the NRC with long-term storage? Now we’re asked again to have confidence. Maybe in another 60 years,” said Jerry Brown, trustee of the Word Business Academy. “If they were seriously concerned, they would: one, immediately suspend the operating license of the nuclear plant, and two, immediately move all spent fuels to an off-site location not susceptible to seismic risk.”

San Luis Obispo resident Roberto Monge invoked the city’s Neighborhood Wellness Program, where residents are required to store their garbage cans out of sight from public streets.

“What I would like is for Diablo Canyon to take its garbage out,” Monge said.

“There is no such thing as waste confidence,” said county resident Bruce Severence. “There is only waste incontinence.”

But what everyone in the room seemed to agree on was that the federal government dropped the ball when it scrapped plans for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in 2009. In January 2012, a Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of the nuclear industry noted that the decision to halt the development of Yucca Mountain was a good indication of its lack of a plan for what to do with the stuff, and recommended the formation of a new government body independent of the Department of Energy dedicated solely to dealing with spent fuel.

“As a utility, we have long advocated for the Department of Energy to create a long-term solution [for waste storage] in a safe, secure, and federally monitored facility,” PG&E’s director of nuclear projects, Jearl Strickland, said, reading off a script. Strickland added that a full third of the nuclear waste at Diablo Canyon has been moved from the spent fuel pools to dry cask storage.

“We have all agreed that the lack of a permanent disposal plan on the part of our federal government is a terrible burden on our community,” San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district houses the nuclear plant, told the crowd.

The draft GEIS can be found at The agency has extended its timeframe for collecting public comment until Dec. 20. Anyone interested in submitting a comment for the record is encouraged to submit an e-mail to, or do it via snail mail to Secretary, U.S. NRC, Washington, DC 20555-0001, ATTN: Rulemaking and Adjudications Staff.


Matt Fountain is news editor of New Times, the Sun’s sister paper to the north. Send comments to

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