By Ed Halpin
In a recent editorial, The (San Luis Obispo) Tribune called on the federal government to keep the issue of spent nuclear fuel storage among its top priorities and to move forward on establishing a federal repository.
As the owner of Diablo Canyon Power Plant and the decommissioned Humboldt Bay Power Plant, PG&E shares The Tribune’s view. We have long advocated that the Department of Energy act on its responsibility to accept spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s active and retired nuclear power plants.
Accepting the spent fuel was a commitment the federal government made to all nuclear energy plant operators, their neighboring communities and energy consumers. It’s a commitment that we and our partners in the industry expect the government to fulfill.
Even as we seek a long-term government storage solution for spent fuel, there should be no uncertainty on two major points: First, nuclear power remains essential to meeting the energy demands of the future; and second, current onsite storage processes for spent fuel are safe and will be for an indefinite period.
Regarding our energy future, nuclear power stands alone as the only major source of carbon-free, baseload power that can operate 24/7. Diablo Canyon provides enough emissions-free and affordable electricity to meet the needs of more than 3 million Californians. The plant also helps PG&E deliver some of the cleanest energy in the nation to our customers, with nearly 60 percent of our portfolio coming from renewable or carbon-free resources. Without the plant, California would be much harder pressed to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals cost-effectively.
The long-term importance of nuclear power is all the more reason the federal government must meet its commitments on spent fuel storage. Until then, PG&E will continue to store spent fuel at Diablo Canyon in safe, secure and federally monitored wet and dry storage facilities.
The wet storage pools house spent fuel immediately after it is removed from the reactors. They were built, with seismic safety in mind, out of steel-reinforced concrete anchored into bedrock, with steel liners serving as an added safety barrier. Layer upon layer of safeguards are in place to effectively manage and monitor the fuel in the pools.
When the spent fuel assemblies have cooled enough and are no longer needed in wet storage, they are taken to a seismically reinforced dry cask storage facility located on-site. Here the assemblies are stored in a secure, protected area until they can be transferred to the federal government.
These two on-site interim storage methods are safe and effective and follow industry best standards.
Meanwhile, PG&E is working to make its customers whole for the costs of storing spent fuel on-site at Diablo Canyon and at the retired Humboldt Bay Power Plant. The absence of a federal repository means that PG&E electric customers are being charged twice to store this fuel — once to build the federal repository, and again to store the fuel on-site as an interim solution.
To rectify the situation, PG&E sued the federal government and recently reached a settlement to recover more than $266 million, which we plan to return to our customers through the rates they pay. As PG&E electric customers were charged twice for storage, they should have these funds returned.
Because our customers and communities were ensured a federal solution for spent fuel, they deserve to have that promise fulfilled.
That’s why we support the work of members of Congress to keep this issue a priority, such as the actions being taken by a bipartisan group of leading senators, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to advance both comprehensive and targeted legislation that would compel the federal government to proceed with a community, consent-based process to establish interim consolidated storage sites. These legislative efforts build off the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations, which received broad-based support. We commend these efforts and believe Congress has a real opportunity to pass legislation to facilitate this process and put the government on track to assume its obligation.
At the same time, we also support the calls of others in Congress and legal efforts for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the licensing of Yucca Mountain. While we wait for the court’s decision and subsequent action from the NRC on Yucca Mountain, we believe Congress should proceed with legislation to advance interim, consolidated storage. It’s imperative that we continue to move forward.
Ed Halpin is a senior vice president and chief nuclear officer for PG&E. This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.