Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Waste storage dilemma crimps nuclear future

Waste storage dilemma crimps nuclear future

David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer
The San Francisco Chronicle
Jun 11, 2006

Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo County -- In a quiet, air-conditioned room deep inside the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant sits a small pool filled
with water colored an unnatural blue. It's packed with radioactive waste. The pool holds roughly half of all the used fuel ever pulled from the
plant's reactors. The other half sits in a second concrete tank nearby, slowly cooling beneath 25 feet of water. Some fuel rods have been there
about 20 years. Both pools are nearly full. Neither was designed to store this much waste. But there's nowhere else to put it.

The government long ago promised Diablo's owner, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., that it would haul away the waste and entomb it deep below Nevada's
Yucca Mountain. But, in the face of unrelenting opposition from Nevada residents irate over the prospect of becoming a dumping ground for nuclear
waste, the repository never opened.

With the nation's appetite for energy growing, the U.S. nuclear industry appears poised for a renaissance. President Bush has made building nuclear
plants, for the first time in decades, a cornerstone of his energy policies. And some former foes are willing to give the technology another
look, lured by the promise of generating abundant power without belching greenhouse gases from more fossil fuel plants.

But the industry and its supporters in Washington still have not resolved one of the biggest issues that derailed nuclear power in the 1970s and
1980s -- what to do with the waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years. Yucca Mountain remains bottled up by Nevada

One alternative would be to recycle spent fuel rods, extracting radioactive material for reuse and reducing the amount of waste that would
need to be stored. But the idea has long been blocked by fears that plutonium removed from old rods could fall into the hands of terrorists or
rogue countries trying to build nuclear weapons.

So Diablo and other nuclear plants must keep their waste on-site -- indefinitely. PG&E installed replacement racks that pack more rods into
Diablo's pools and has even started building another storage facility that could cost up to $200 million on a hillside behind the plant.
"The government hasn't lived up to its contracts, so what's happening now is Plan B," said David Vosburg, a PG&E project manager. "The extra racks
are filling up. The same thing's happening across the country."

Extra storage sites next to nuclear plants, however, won't solve the problem. They will just buy time.

"You just have to hope that there's a national solution, because this won't be a Diablo issue -- it will be a national issue," said Richard
Hagler, project engineer for the new storage facility.

Anyone living near a nuclear plant also lives near a long-term storage site for radioactive waste. Those facilities aren't long-term by the
standards of engineers, who must consider what happens to radioactive material over centuries. Homeowners, however, find themselves spending
decades close to used fuel rods, with no end in sight.

"They promised us that the waste would be removed and the government would come to the rescue," said Jack Biesek, 58, who lives in a lushly wooded
canyon about 7 miles downwind of Diablo. "I think it's going to stay there. The handwriting's on the wall."

Without a long-range solution for the waste problem, America's much-heralded "nuclear spring" may never come.

"Obviously, waste storage is the elephant in the room," said Frank Bowman, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the
industry's main lobbying group. America now has roughly 40,000 metric tons of spent radioactive fuel, according to the institute, with another 2,000 metric tons added each
year. Even if Yucca Mountain opens, the nation would soon need another facility just like it. Reprocessing the fuel would relieve that pressure, but it's far from clear that reuse will ever happen.
"If we don't recycle, we're going to have to build a new Yucca Mountain every few decades," said U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell.

Used fuel rods are hot and highly radioactive when they emerge from a reactor. Both the heat and the radioactivity drop substantially within the
first several years, the radiation falling by a factor of 1,000 in a decade, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. But the rods remain
dangerously radioactive for many thousands of years.

Diablo Canyon has relied on its twin spent-fuel pools to store waste since the plant began commercial operation in 1985.

They sit not far from the towering containment domes that hold Diablo's reactors, separated from the outside world by steel walls and concrete
floors. The plant refuels every 18 to 21 months, plugging some new rods into the reactors and transferring old ones to the storage pools.
Standing 12 feet tall, each rod is a metal tube filled with uranium pellets -- the source of the plant's power. The rods are narrow, about the
width of a fat pencil, and are bundled into assemblies that weigh 1,350 pounds each. Workers maneuver the assemblies into the pools through a
series of water-filled channels to keep the fuel cool, making sure it never touches open air. A crane grabs the assemblies underwater and lowers
them into waiting racks.

Each pool was designed to hold 270 assemblies. Now, the racks have been reconfigured to store 1,324.

One pool already has 1,064. The other, 1,100.

"Five percent of the state's electricity generation for the last 20 years is sitting in that pool," Vosburg said, as a current of circulating water
rippled the surface. The water, surrounded by concrete walls 6 feet thick, dissipates heat coming from the fuel rods and shields the outside world
from radiation. Boric acid, added to the water to absorb neutrons, gives the pool its deep blue tint.

Later this year, PG&E will install temporary racks in both pools to provide 154 more storage slots each. Even so, they will run out of room by
2010. So PG&E, like operators of the nation's 64 other nuclear power plants, is trying to make do.

On a shaved-off hillside overlooking the plant, workers pour the concrete floor for Diablo's next storage facility. Instead of using a pool, PG&E
will seal old fuel assemblies inside 20-foot-tall canisters lined up like squat obelisks on an open field. There will be no walls or ceiling of any
kind -- just the canisters themselves.

The technology is called dry cask storage, and it isn't new. Its use at Diablo, however, has alarmed many of the plant's long-standing opponents.
They fear that the field, which could eventually hold 138 casks, will make an even more alluring target for terrorists than the plant itself, perched
on a rocky stretch of the central California coast. A commandeered jet, they say, could approach Diablo from the water, fly over the plant and
crash into the casks, spewing radioactive material into the air. "How is that safe from terrorism, especially when there's no 'no fly
zone' at the plant?" asked Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. "California needs to know, how much radioactive waste are
we willing to store on our coast, for how long?"

Last week, a federal court ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should have examined the possibility of a terrorist assault on Diablo
before giving PG&E permission to build the dry cask facility. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered the commission to
study what threat an attack could pose to the local environment. However, a PG&E spokesman said construction will continue during the review, with
the first casks scheduled to be loaded with fuel next fall. The company considers the facility secure.

Standing above the field, PG&E engineer Hagler sketched out possible lines of terrorist attack. Fly a commercial airliner in from the west, over the
ocean, and the hillside would rip off the plane's right wing before it could reach the casks. Approach from the east, and the pilot would have to
hug the contours of several protecting hills before making a swift, steep plunge into the field.

Those obstacles wouldn't matter as much to a small plane. But small aircraft, he said, lack the mass to smash open the steel-and-concrete casks.
"An aircraft that size? It'd be like a bee hitting a windshield," Hagler said. "I know the cask is going to win."

To some neighbors, terrorism isn't the only issue. They object to the possibility that Diablo's waste will never leave, staying decade after
decade on the coast they love until its presence becomes permanent. "This whole area is going to be a carbuncle ruined for millennia," Biesek

Since 1976, he has lived in nearby See Canyon, along a stream shaded by oak and pine trees. He and his wife, Susan, have long opposed the plant.
They keep a Geiger counter in the house, although it needs new batteries. The Bieseks question whether any storage technology can isolate nuclear
waste from the environment forever, particularly in a place prone to earthquakes and other disasters. If radioactive material from Diablo found
its way into an aquifer or the ocean, they said, who knows how widespread the effects could be?

"It's not like this backyard dump is just our dump," Susan Biesek said one recent morning, as birdsong filled the canyon's cool air. "Where do you
move that's safe?" Such talk drives nuclear engineers to distraction. Used nuclear fuel does pose risks, they say, but those risks can be controlled.
"I hate the word 'dump,' " said Mark Somerville, a PG&E physicist specializing in radiation protection. "I sympathize with people who, like
we did, thought there'd be an endgame where things would be handled long term. ... But it's anything but a dump. It's a very carefully controlled

Meanwhile, the Bush administration keeps pushing to open Yucca Mountain and recycle used fuel. Storing waste on-site, Deputy Energy Secretary Sell
said, is safe but won't solve the problem.

"As an interim solution, it's acceptable," he said. "As a long-term solution, it's not." E-mail David R. Baker at dbaker@sfchronicle.com.

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