Hope for the New Year: Factual Discussions about Spent Nuclear Fuel

Spent nuclear fuel is safely stored. And that’s a good thing. At SONGS, improvements have been implemented to make it even safer, such as using 316L stainless steel (highly corrosion resistant); canisters that are 5/8” thick; and building systems to super-fortified seismic and tsunami standards. Even the placement of individual fuel assemblies within each canister has been thoroughly analyzed to ensure the canisters are safe for transportation. Further, history tells us spent nuclear fuel safely stored is not risky nor dangerous to the general public or the environment. Spent fuel has never harmed anyone.

Holtec Test Canister
Crews install the test canister at SONGS. The canister is similar to those that store spent nuclear fuel except that this one is electrically heated (to simulate a canister loaded with actual fuel) so it can be removed and inspected.

Yet, there are still a few in the community and region who think the best pathway for removing spent nuclear fuel from SONGS is to make it out to be an “impending disaster.” Again, there is no scientific literature, nor human experience, to validate that position regarding spent nuclear fuel.

The Samuel Lawrence Foundation, an activist group in Del Mar, Calif., posted a YouTube video that claims spent nuclear fuel “puts you, your family, and everything else that lives in California at risk.” Statements like that rarely have data or facts to back them up, for obvious reasons.

A variant on the hyperbole above is to say that factually stating how safe spent nuclear fuel is stored is “downplaying the risks.” But it’s not that way at all, it’s simply relating what the actual risks are (very small to negligible, or as scientists like to say, “vanishingly small”). More dangerous is baselessly inflating the risks, which leads to poor policy choices, and likely has had some role in where we are now: no place to send the spent fuel.

TN-NUHOMS 1
The TN-NUHOMS system at SONGS holds 50 canisters of spent nuclear fuel.

The Government Accountability Office put it this way in a recent report: “Spent nuclear fuel … can pose serious environmental, public health, and security risks if not properly managed." (Emphasis added). But it is managed properly at SONGS and nuclear sites across the U.S.

Stated another way: spent nuclear fuel does not pose serious environmental, public health or security risks when properly managed.

The report also said:

“(The Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has analyzed the impacts of on-site dry cask interim storage for periods of at least 60 years beyond the licensing period of a reactor, as well as for successive 100-year periods after the first 60 years. NRC has concluded that spent fuel can be adequately protected and safely stored in the short term until a repository is available or indefinitely, should it be necessary to do so…” (Reference: NUREG-2157 Appendix B)

So, in 2022, let’s commit to tackling the issue of spent nuclear fuel storage, both short- and long-term, with facts, not fear, and continue building momentum to establish a national repository.