January 23, 2002


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Nuke the nukes
Need for radioactive storage gives activists a new weapon

By Savannah Blackwell

A California environmental activist group has discovered what could be a clever new strategy in its two-decade fight to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, which unsuccessfully fought the construction of Pacific Gas and Electric's San Luis Obispo plant and has monitored activities there for more than 20 years, is calling for the utility to shutter the Diablo Canyon plant because it has no plan for permanently storing hazardous uranium-based byproducts.

At issue: Late last fall PG&E applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and San Luis Obispo County to construct a high-level radioactive-waste storage facility covering three acres at the Diablo Canyon site near the reactor. The plant sits close to the Pacific shoreline and roughly two miles away from the active Hosgri fault line. For the past 20 years, PG&E has been "temporarily" storing spent fuel rods in a murky pool housed in a corrugated building that is not, the group says, safe from terrorist attacks. By 2006 no space will be left in the building.

"This gives them some time," Rochelle Becker of Mothers for Peace said. "The plant should stop operations, and the strongest reason for this is that high-level radioactive waste has got to be [far] away from sources of water. This plant sits right on a coastal bluff."

The group is appealing to state legislators, including state senator Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), to force PG&E to stop producing radioactive waste.

If successful, the group could influence PG&E's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. The utility is currently trying to get out from under state regulation in its reorganization proposal.

"We're in a dangerous quandary with radioactive waste," said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C. "We're obviously not safe in the context of terrorism, and there's really no scientifically proven safe place for it to go. What we worry about with this issue is 'Out of the pan and into the fire.' We need to put a cap on what's been mismanaged for 50 years."

PG&E officials did not return calls for comment by press time.

Utilities nationwide are running out of "temporary" storage space at plants and are applying to build more permanent storage facilities on-site. Though the Bush administration is pushing for the construction of more nuclear power plants and is trying to get a permanent regional storage site built at Yucca Mountain, Nev., certain communities have taken steps to stop local storage of nuclear waste. In 1994, Minnesota passed legislation that gave the state control over nuclear waste and then limited the amount of storage space at the Prairie Island nuclear power plant.

Officials in Rockland, N.Y., decided Jan. 15 to ask the federal government to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plants in nearby Buchanan because nuclear waste is not securely stored there.

"The public's welfare is at stake here," Becker said. "If PG&E gets its way, we'll be leaving a horrible legacy for our children, our grandchildren, and maybe everybody in perpetuity. This is a big, big issue."

To get involved or to send a donation, contact San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, P.O. Box 164, Pismo, CA 93448.
E-mail Savannah Blackwell at savannah@sfbg.com.