It is admirable that Sen. Dianne Feinstein along with her colleagues Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. has introduced legislation to address disposal of extremely long-lived radioactive waste materials from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons facilities. Unfortunately, Feinstein's bill neglects the immediate danger to public health and safety presented by these highly radioactive wastes.
The senators' current legislation would replace the failed Yucca Mountain waste repository plan with a process for choosing a voluntary permanent waste repository and interim storage sites. This process, if enacted, would take a minimum of seven years before any of the highly radioactive waste could be moved. In addition, interim storage sites, unless they are near the eventual permanent waste disposal site, could lead to multiple transports of deadly waste magnifying the health hazard to the public.
Feinstein's bill squanders its bipartisan effort for a health-protective legislation because it fails to address the immediate danger that these highly radioactive wastes present. Thousands of tons of highly radioactive "spent" nuclear fuel rods will remain sitting in vulnerable spent fuel pools around the country, including the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants here in California. The majority of these wastes, which have cooled sufficiently, could and should be loaded into safer dry cask storage.
Dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel rods, which is passively air-cooled, held up very well in the Fukushima accident. Prudent concern for the public's health dictates that these casks should be further protected from accident or natural disaster through the use of bunkers or other forms of "hardened on-site storage."
Feinstein clearly knows how dangerous a spent fuel pool can be, from her own observations in the wake of the Fukushima disaster that has left many ongoing dangers to the public. Reactor Number 4's pool, damaged by the earthquake and hydrogen explosion at the reactor, remains in danger of collapsing threatening to release an even larger amount of radioactive material than had been released in the original accident.
Engineers have so far been unable to defuse the danger of the weakened pool by transferring the spent fuel rods to dry cask storage. Until this is accomplished, we can only hope that there is no intervening earthquake that would collapse the pool and send a massive cloud of radioactive material across the Pacific.
In an April 8, 2011, letter that Feinstein sent to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, she said: "The lesson from Japan's disaster is that we must be prepared to respond to unanticipated threats," imploring that he "seriously consider regulatory policies that would encourage the movement of nuclear fuel, once sufficiently cool, out of spent fuel pools and into dry cask storage systems. I am concerned that current Nuclear Regulatory Commission policies allow excessive re-racking and densification of radioactive fuel within spent fuel pools."
We strongly support Feinstein's early position on this critical issue. Getting as much highly radioactive waste as possible out of these weakly reinforced pools and into safer storage has been a stated priority of nuclear power experts, including the NRC's new chairwoman, Alison Macfarlane. In a bizarre twist, a June NRC staff report concluded that pool-based storage of irradiated fuel is adequate and there is only a one in 10 million years chance of a severe earthquake causing a radioactive release from the pool examined in the study. Contradicting this latest study, in 2007 the NRC concluded that a spent fuel pool crack caused by an earthquake at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station could result in a lethal dose of radiation being released within a 10-mile radius of the plant. We ignore these "black swan" events, such as those which occurred in Japan, at great peril.
Feinstein and her colleagues would be wise to also address the immediate safety issues of spent fuel waste at reactor sites, rather than leave our state's safety hostage to a vague process of identifying voluntary waste sites that could take many years to complete.
Dr. Robert Gould is president of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Dr. Harry Wang is president of the Sacramento chapter, and Dr. Jimmy Hara is vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.