The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded in its latest study that existing rules and regulations provide a “high degree of protection” for the transportation of spent nuclear fuel.
San Luis Obispo County, California, resident Marilyn E. Brown respectfully disagrees.
Incited by the proximity of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, southwest of her Atascadero home, Brown objected to the commission’s analysis in public comments that are open through Monday.
“The time is approaching for critical measures to be taken for public and property safety as more nuclear facilities are decommissioned and waste will be either transported or secured in place,” Brown advises regulators, citing her “great concern over the proposed transport of high-level nuclear waste by rail to a repository; the location of which remains undesignated as of this time.”
A 70-year-old caregiver and activist, Brown added in a telephone interview Friday that she wants to “see what we can do to operate the plant safely” if it is going to remain open.
While Diablo Canyon safety issues have long drawn intense public interest, Brown stands out in her willingness to articulate her concerns. In the nearly two months since the commission posted its study, hers was one of only two public comments received through Friday afternoon.
By contrast, a proposal to remove the West Indian manatee from endangered species protection has attracted 1,286 public comments during a slightly longer review period. A proposed reclassification of shock treatment devices has drawn 1,971 comments.
“There’s apathy among the general public,” Brown acknowledged.
Besides Brown’s, the only other, equally critical, comment to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 109-page study submitted as of Friday afternoon came from the San Luis Obispo-based Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.
“Our principle concern is that the data the NRC is relying upon to make their assumptions regarding the risks and probability of rail-related accidents and fires is insufficient and outdated,” the alliance says.
The NRC study that so far has drawn remarkably little attention is titled “A Compendium of Spent Fuel Transportation Package Response Analyses to Severe Fire Accident Scenarios.” Completed last October by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, the report examines truck and rail accidents involving fires.
Surveys of rail and roadway accidents involving fires show a small number of severe fires in which the peak fire temperature and duration have exceeded these regulatory values.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission study
No such accidents involving spent nuclear fuel have occurred, on either roads or rail lines, but planners want to be prepared.
“Accidents resulting in fires do occur in both modes of transport,” the report notes, “and, however unlikely, plausible arguments can be made for the possibility of SNF containers being involved in such accidents.”
Employing more than 1,400 people, Diablo Canyon includes two units that are licensed to operate through 2024 and 2025. The PG&E-owned facility produces enough electricity for more than 3 million California residents.
Because the federal government has stalled in opening a permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Diablo Canyon stores spent uranium fuel rods on site. A bill permitting temporary spent-fuel storage in Texas has won support from lawmakers including Sacramento-area Democratic U.S. Reps. Doris Matsui and Ami Bera and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista.
Transportation safety will become paramount if either the temporary Texas storage or the permanent Nevada facility ever opens.
Long-standing rules require packaging that can contain the radioactive spent nuclear fuel for at least 30 minutes in a fire that reaches 800 degrees Celsius, which is 1,740 degrees Fahrenheit.
The NRC study determined that “severe” rail fires that could result in such sustained heat are “extremely infrequent events.” Researchers identified only one fire-related hazardous material incident from 1975 to 2005 – a 2001 derailment in Baltimore – as taking place in a tunnel, where fire can engulf a train.
The researchers also examined the fire scenarios from three major California highway accidents, including the catastrophic 2007 crash of a gasoline tanker at the MacArthur Maze interchange in Oakland.
Researchers noted the infrequency of relevant accidents as well as the efficacy of planned safety measures, which for rail transport include special packaging, the use of buffer cars to shield the spent fuel packages and dedicated trains.
“The combined summary of work on fire accidents demonstrates that current NRC regulations and packaging standards provide a high degree of protection to the public health and safety against releases of radioactive material during real-life transportation accidents,” the report says.
While acknowledging that the “extremely challenging” MacArthur Maze fire scenario could cause a “potential release” of radioactive materials, the researchers concluded the amount released “would still be within regulatory limits.”