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Synthesis/Regeneration 17   (Fall 1998)

Nuclear Waste: Transportation vs. On-Site Storage

by Klaus Schumann, County Coordinator, San Luis Obispo Green Party

The recent layoffs at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (Diablo) near San Luis Obispo, CA raise grave concerns about the safety of its operations. As nuclear plants age, they require more maintenance, repairs and supervision. How can these challenges be met with a substantially reduced work force? Moreover, nuclear foes have warned for years that energy deregulation will inevitably compromise operational safety. Now some of the most ardent proponents of nuclear power are voicing similar concerns. Neil Aiken, a plant operator at Diablo for 24 years, states in a report to the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee that "PG&E's (Pacific Gas & Electric) focus on profits and economic preparations for deregulation has created an environment in which safe operation is being jeopardized." Likewise, David Miller, a Diablo construction planner, complains "There's a lot of Wall Street issues. There's a whole new culture at Diablo" (San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune, 5/13/98, pg. Al). Instead of taking the whistle blower seriously, PG&E responded by suspending Aiken from his duties and forcing him to undergo a series of demeaning physical and psychiatric tests!

While all of this doesn't bode well for the ongoing operations, it is even more troubling in light of the upcoming decisions on transportation and/or storage of Diablo's irradiated fuel. A form of high level nuclear wastes (HLNW), irradiated fuel is misleadingly called "spent fuel" by the nuclear industry in an obvious attempt to confuse the public about the true extremely radioactive nature of these wastes [1]. We must remember that with each day in operation nuclear plants produce more irradiated fuel, one of the most toxic substances ever created, which will remain deadly for at least a quarter of a million years. Any hurried decision now, driven by the shortsighted economic interests of the plant operators, can only spell disaster for the future.

PG&E's focus on profits and economic preparations for deregulation has created an environment in which safe operation is being jeopardized.

At the same time news has arrived from Germany, Switzerland and France about a huge scandal regarding HLNW transportation there. More than one third of the transports resulted in radioactive contamination on the outside (!) of the casks with levels up to 3000 times the allowed limits. Worse, in a cooperative cover-up by industry and oversight agencies the information was kept from the public and the governments for 12 years.

Why should we be concerned about this European scandal? For starters, similar casks and procedures are proposed for transport in the US. Furthermore, the German operations, with more public awareness and involvement, were considered a model for America, even by some nuclear opponents. And the German industry does not operate under the pressures of deregulation as many American plants do. In addition, critics have been complaining about the same types of collusion between US government agencies (like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or Dept. of Energy) and the nuclear industry for years.

The lesson to be learned in all of this is clear: if we are indeed serious about the safety of the public we either stop deregulating the energy industry or, better still, we stop producing nuclear wastes until permanent and safe solutions are found for the massive amounts already accumulated at the plant sites. Basically, this is also the position of the California Green Party. In its platform plank "Nuclear Contamination" it states: " The Green Party calls for a halt to contamination of new sites, and to continued production of wastes" and to " adopt a policy for the safest possible storage of existing radioactive materials, and discontinue attempting their" disposal "in land repositories." (Policy Directions, 1998, p. 16 )

Greens, however, should not be fundamentally opposed to the deregulation of the energy industry, which in a truly competitive market would provide opportunities for renewable sources like solar, wind and biomass and would almost for certain shut down the nuclear plants for economic reasons. Therefore, the California Green Party strongly backs Proposition 9, which would repeal the bail-out and would help to create a truly deregulated market.

...each day in operation nuclear plants produce more irradiated fuel, one of the most toxic substances ever created, which will remain deadly for at least a quarter of a million years.

But even if all nuclear plants shut down tomorrow, we still will have to deal with the tens of thousands of irradiated fuel assemblies already stored at the sites in pools (about 1300 at Diablo alone) and/or dry cask systems. Each assembly contains in long-lived radioactivity the equivalent of ten Hiroshima bombs! Are we better off if these wastes are shipped out as quickly as possible to a yet to be determined site, or are we better off if irradiated fuel remains at the plants, at least until a permanent depository is established, and transportation to it can be accomplished without jeopardizing the health and safety of the people living near the routes? [2] Unfortunately, if the operators and the federal government have their way, local residents anywhere in the 41 affected states will not get to make this crucial decision. They are supposed to live with the "Uncle Sam knows best" approach. Uncle Sam and the nuclear industry have always been very cozy. This is at least in part due to those huge campaign contributions the industry is dishing out every time nuclear legislation is scheduled in Congress, as was certainly the case (some $13 million) in 1997 when both houses passed the relevant bills to allow the shipments of HLNW from the power plants to a temporary site near Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Only a promised veto by President Clinton stands presently in the path of the "mobile Chernobyl."

PG&E and plant operators elsewhere have been advocating a quick shipping off site mainly for economic reasons. According to the proposed bills, ownership of and liability for the HLNW goes to the US taxpayers as soon as it leaves the plant sites. In addition, shipment now would eliminate the need for an expensive extension of storage capacity at the plants. At Diablo, more storage space will not be needed until 2006, if the plant isn't shut down before then for economic reasons in a truly deregulated market.

On the other hand, leaving the irradiated fuel on site for a prolonged period of time (up to 100 years), would have significant advantages with regard to the safety of the population at large:

1. Transportation after 50 years or more would be substantially less dangerous. Irradiated fuel becomes over time less hot, both in terms of temperature and radioactivity. For example, if shipped out after 50 years instead of five, the assemblies would be only one sixth as "hot." With current technology, irradiated fuel has to cool off for at least five years in a water filled pool before transportation can even be considered. (Of course, even at one sixth the radioactivity an assembly would still contain a huge amount!).

2. Some of the radioactive materials are particularly difficult, time-consuming and expensive to clean up after accidents, i.e. Cobalt 60, Strontium 90 and Cesium 134 & 137. All of these, however, are relatively short-lived; longer storage at the plants would render them less damaging. [3]

3. With all of the above, the transports would become less attractive to sabotage or terrorism, possibly the most worrisome disaster potential.

4. A second transport from a temporary to a permanent site and its inevitable costs and risks would be avoided.

5. Additionally, substantial time would be gained for finding safer means of transportation and/or permanent storage. [4]

While not without its own problems, on-site storage, other than in water-filled pools, is already done at a dozen plant sites across the nation. They almost all use so-called "dry cask storage systems," which cool the hot assemblies passively by circulating air around the casks holding them. These systems appear to be less vulnerable than wet systems, and unlike the pools, do not continuously produce low level nuclear wastes, which also need to be disposed of. Dry systems, however, also do require monitoring at all times.

The costs for on-site storage versus transportation to a temporary site, storage there, and second transportation to a permanent site are debatable. One thing is certain, however,: it will cost us as tax-and/or rate payers dearly, and not only us, but the next 8300 generations as well. After all of the above, the most responsible way clearly would be the immediate halt to any further production of those wastes. This position is shared by the California Green Party and by Green Parties all over the globe. It is also the conclusion of some of the most reputable scientist, and experts on nuclear wastes, like, for example, Dr. Marvin Resnikoff of the Radioactive Waste Management Associates in New York [5]. For the already accumulated irradiated fuel, continued on-site storage in dry casks appears to be the better way to go (if done correctly!). NRC, DOE, Congress, and the nuclear industry, however, are very hesitant to even talk about these options.

...as long as the economic interests of the nuclear plant operators override the safety interests of the general public, sensible solutions to the nuclear waste problem cannot be expected.

On April 6, 1996, the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) created the truly independent "SLO Nuclear Waste Management Committee," which consists of local residents, environmental organizations, and representatives from local and state governmental agencies. Unfortunately, SLOCOG did not provide funding or staff support. Despite this, the Committee has been meeting regularly, listening to experts, and continues to look into all options, including those which do not solely serve the economic interests of PG&E. By contrast, the so-called Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee operates on a budget of $600, 000 per year. Its independent status has been questioned even by loyal PG&E employees and nuclear proponents. It is financed by the rate payers through the PG&E billing process and works closely with PG&E and the NRC. It appears to avoid any controversial topics which go contrary to PG&E interests. For example, so far it hasn't done a thing about Aikens safety concerns. Obviously, as long as the economic interests of the nuclear plant operators override the safety interests of the general public, sensible solutions to the nuclear waste problem cannot be expected. It is time that local residents voice their concerns and force the governments to listen.

Klaus Schumann is the County Coordinator and Green Party Member of the SLO Nuclear Waste Management Committee. He wishes to make clear that he is merely a member of the SLO Nuclear Waste Management Committee, not its spokesperson or representative. However, he was asked to draft the chapter about on-site storage options for the committee's final report.


1. The fuel, when taken out of the reactor, is called "spent fuel" by the industry. It is actually about one million times more radioactive than when it was first placed into the reactor. "Spent" refers to its usefulness for generating electricity but by no means to its radioactive content. Therefore, the term "highly irradiated fuel" or "irradiated fuel" is more correct and far less misleading.

2. This article does not address other considerations like environmental or racial justice ( for communities on the receiving side), or safety, health, property rights and economic implications for people living away from the plants near transportation routes.

3. Irradiated fuel contains nearly 200 different radio nuclides. We must keep in mind that the most toxic is also the longest lived, i.e. plutonium, which has a half-life of 240,000 years. The discussion here relates solely to the question of immediate transportation versus continued on-site storage. It does not question the necessity of monitored storage for the entire life span of the plutonium in any way.

4. This does not imply that passing time alone could resolve nuke transportation issues. Moreover, the development of safer technologies might very well prove to be impossible. We Greens, however, would be well advised not to appear closed minded towards unforeseen technological advances for ideological reasons, especially in light of the massive amounts of irradiated fuel already accumulated at the plants. Whether we like it or not, these wastes are there and have to be dealt with.

5. Compare "The Next Nuclear Gamble: Transportation and Storage of Nuclear Waste" by Marvin Resnikoff for the Council of Economic Priorities, 1983, and Resnikoff before the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, September 11, 1994 (p 5, #15)

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