Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California has 1,300 tons of nuclear waste sitting on its back porch, waiting for pickup. The problem is there's no one to pick it up. The 103 other reactors in the U.S. are in the same bind. It's now been more than 50 years since the first American plant was switched on. And as Craig Miller of member station KQED reports, the federal government still hasn't found a permanent home for the nation's nuclear waste.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

CRAIG MILLER: Getting inside a nuclear power plant means running a gauntlet of tight security. This is me being electronically sniffed during a 2008 visit to PG&E's Diablo Canyon plant on California's central coast. Security guards here are decked out like a SWAT team, clad in fatigues and toting M-16s. But some believe that one of the biggest threats to public safety is already inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

MILLER: The two nuclear reactors here generate steam that drives these giant turbines you're hearing, which in turn generate electricity to power about 3 million households. Once the uranium rods that fuel the reactors are used up, they're removed and cooled down underwater, in temporary storage pools. Trouble is those temporary pools have become pretty permanent and crowded as utilities load them up with more fuel rods, squeezing them closer together. Since 1982, utility customers on the nuclear grid have paid $34 billion into a federal fund for moving the waste to some kind of permanent disposal site, something the federal government still hasn't done.

Dr. PER PETERSON. CHAIRMAN, NUCLEAR ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT, U.C. BERKELEY: We've made progress, but it's taken an enormous amount of time.

MILLER: Per Peterson chairs the nuclear engineering department at U.C. Berkeley and is part of a White House blue ribbon commission on nuclear waste.

BERKELEY: This country has an obligation to those states and those communities to take those materials and put them into deep geologic disposal, where they can be safely isolated for a very long period of time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MILLER: The recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, renewed fears about spent fuel safety in this country, where 65,000 tons of nuclear waste have piled up at power plants - waste that produces more radioactivity than the reactors themselves. In response, California Senator Dianne Feinstein called hearings on Capitol Hill.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It is clear that we lack a comprehensive national policy to address the nuclear fuel cycle, including management of nuclear waste.

MILLER: Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the leading contender until Nevada's residents said: Not in our backyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

MILLER: In the meantime, utilities like PG&E are stuck with it. During my visit three years ago, engineers at Diablo Canyon were preparing to move older waste from storage in pools to containers called dry casks.

PETE RESLER: Those spent fuel pools were not built large enough to hold all the fuel from their original 40-year license life, so we had to find alternatives for safe storage.

MILLER: Pete Resler, head of PG&E's Nuclear Communications at the time, walked me around some of the dry casks - huge concrete and steel cylinders that PG&E is using to store older, less radioactive waste. Each one anchored to its own concrete pad.

RESLER: Each one of those pads is 7-foot-thick concrete with steel rebar reinforcement in it.

MILLER: Those pads are there as an extra measure because Diablo is situated near two significant seismic faults. There are now 16 of these canisters sitting on the plant grounds, with plans to fill 12 more in the next couple of years.

RESLER: Very safe, proven technology.

MILLER: The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, told Senator Feinstein's committee that those dry casks are the best we can do for now.

Dr. GREGORY JACZKO: And right now, we believe that for at least 100 years, that fuel can be stored with very little impacts to health and safety or to the environment.

MILLER: In the meantime, that blue ribbon commission appointed by President Obama is making another round of recommendations tomorrow, but the Holy Grail of a permanent home for spent fuel likely remains decades away. For NPR News, I'm Craig Miller in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: