SAN FRANCISCO — Increased storage of radioactive wastes at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant has been temporarily prohibited by a federal appeals court.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals raised the possibility of a lengthy shutdown of the plant near San Luis Obispo.
The decision came in response to claims by opponents of the plant that the new storage facilities are unsafe. The protesters assert that they are entitled to a safety hearing before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The court did not say whether an NRC hearing will be required before expansion of waste storage, but said opponents have made enough of a case to entitle them to an order halting storage of wastes for the time being. The court, in its ruling Wednesday, said it would hear arguments in San Francisco next month on whether a hearing is necessary.
"We are delighted," said Dian Grueneich, a lawyer for Mothers for Peace and the Sierra Club.
A spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., operator of Diablo Canyon, said the company is pleased that the court has not interfered with remodeling of the plant in preparation for expanded waste storage.
"We believe that after complete judicial review, the court will concur that reracking and storage of spent nuclear fuel is routine and consistent with NRC regulations," said the spokesman, George Sarkesian. "Safety is our foremost consideration."
In seeking to require an NRC safety hearing on the question, opponents of the plant cited a federal law requiring such hearings unless the commission finds "no significant hazards."
Grueneich told the court that members of Congress, in drafting and debating the law, stated clearly that expansion of nuclear waste storage posed a significant hazard. "The NRC blatantly ignored this legislative directive," she said.
The NRC, which has rejected repeated challenges to the licensing of the $5.8-billion plant, has ruled that the expansion of storage capacity poses no danger and that hearings are not required before the expansion.
PG&E lawyer Bruce Norton said the increase in radioactivity of the stored wastes will be far less than five-fold, because most radiation is used up in the first year of storage.
In addition, Norton said PG&E and its customers face major expenses if the expansion is delayed, because the resulting shutdown of the plant would force the utility to spend $1 million a day more on other fuels. Grueneich argued later the actual fuel cost difference would be less than half that amount.
In arguing against an order to halt storage of wastes, the company said any delays caused by the lawsuit may prevent reopening of the plant in December because there would be no place to put the radioactive wastes.