Posted on November 19, 2013

Commentary: PG&E Can Safely Store Spent Fuel, But It’s Time for Federal Government to Take Responsibility

By Ed Halpin

The long-term storage of spent fuel at the nation’s nuclear power plants will be the subject of a local meeting Nov. 20 held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). It’s an important issue to discuss because of the critical role that nuclear energy plays in fulfilling our need for safe, emissions-free power.

Today, nuclear power supplies nearly 20 percent of America’s electricity. It’s a reliable source that isn’t subject to changing weather conditions or unpredictable fuel cost fluctuations. In addition, the facilities that produce this energy employ thousands of workers and contribute greatly to the economic health of their communities.

Ed Halpin

"Long-term fuel storage is the responsibility of the federal government," writes Ed Halpin, PG&E's chief nuclear officer.

The same holds true for Diablo Canyon Power Plant, which employs nearly 1,500 people and generates enough electricity for more than 3 million Californians. Its zero-emissions attribute is a key reason why PG&E customers receive some of the cleanest electricity in the nation. And in a state that is setting the standard in addressing climate change, Diablo Canyon will continue to be a major factor in achieving a clean energy future.

Just as the benefits of nuclear energy are clear, so is PG&E’s ability to safely manage the spent fuel until the federal government establishes a national storage solution.

Safely managing the fuel onsite involves two methods known as wet and dry storage. The wet storage method involves placing a fuel assembly in one of two pools after it is no longer needed in generating electricity. These secure, robust, concrete and steel-lined structures are built into bedrock and designed to withstand extreme events such as earthquakes. Multiple safety systems ensure cooling is continuously provided.

When a fuel assembly has sufficiently cooled and is no longer needed in a pool, it is transferred to a dry cask storage system to await delivery to the federal government.

Over the years, there has been much study on the safety of both storage methods – and rightfully so. The independent NRC has continuously found that pools and dry containers are safe and that both protect public health and the environment. The NRC has also found no safety reason to mandate an earlier transfer of fuel from pools to dry casks.

In fact, the safety of the wet storage system was tested during the 2011 Fukushima tragedy in Japan. Despite the earthquake and tsunami, the pools and the spent fuel stored there were undamaged. As I personally observed in a visit to Fukushima in September, the ability of the pools to withstand such extreme events validated the effectiveness of the design.

While the capability to safely store fuel onsite is proven, it should not serve as a reason for the government to further delay fulfilling its obligation to take ownership of it.

When Diablo Canyon and other nuclear power plants around the country were proposed, the government promised that a national repository would be established. Unfortunately, politics and changing agendas have resulted in federal inaction and delay. It’s time for that to change. Long-term fuel storage is the responsibility of the federal government—not individual power plants—and we urge resolution in upholding that responsibility.

Ed Halpin is a PG&E senior vice president and its chief nuclear officer. This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.


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