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As San Onofre's Radioactive Waste Goes Underground, Opponents Search For Alternatives

March 29, 2018 1:36 p.m.

As San Onofre's Radioactive Waste Goes Underground, Opponents Search For Alternatives

GUEST:

Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News

Related Story: As San Onofre's Radioactive Waste Goes Underground, Opponents Search For Alternatives

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

>> This is the KPBS Mid-Day edition. I'm Michael Lipkin. As the power plant is decommissioned in San Onofre you -- San Onofre, the twin domes will disappear. The most dangerous legacy of the plan, thousands of highly radioactive fuel rods will remain there just out of sight. There is no guarantee that they will ever be removed. KPBS reporter Allison St. John has more on the options that so far have gone nowhere.
>> Thousands of fuel rods plaque -- packed with uranium pellets and generated electricity for Southern California, for 45 years. The fuel will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. It is now being moved from cooling ponds into concrete bunkers on site just feet from the beach. Edison decided this is his only option since the federal government has failed to find a long-term storage site for nuclear waste anywhere else in the country. Admiral Harry who had a Navy region Southwest before his retirement is one of many voices calling for the decision to be reconsidered.
>> I believe that cost was a driving factor. Expediency was a driving factor. And the associated risks that are now being identified, I think are much more brave than what was put in the assessment.
>> Hearing says the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may have given the go-ahead but another federal agency, the Department of Defense, should consider the national security risks. He is looking ahead and says before the ocean comes over the seawall, sea level rise could compromise the bottom of the canisters holding the waste.
>> As sea level rises, the containers are subjected to elements that they simply are not designed to handle.
>> Every once in a be to consider moving the waste to another spot at Camp Pendleton on the other side of the freeway, where it could be on higher ground. So far, the Marine Corps has rejected the idea. The next closest alternative being proposed is to store the waste and another nuclear power plant about 350 miles east in Arizona. But there is part ownership at Palo Verde. One attorney who has sued Erickson -- Edison believes this is the best bet.
>> Nobody wants to have nuclear waste in the community but we do have a shot -- they are already storing nuclear waste for California there.
>> Edison has asked and been turned down but they believe they should try again. The third option comes from the private sector which is eager to tap into tens of billions of dollars the federal government has collected for nuclear waste storage. But that money was for long-term storage at Yucca Mountain and the government does not want to release it for interim storage. David Richter is the chair of the Edison community engagement panel. A group that we -- that meets quarterly to review what is going on.
>> .
>> I would say there is a gap opening with what the private sector has been able to and what the government needs to do in terms of changing federal law.
>> They say two companies are now applying for licenses to build interim storage sites. One in West Texas and one in Eastern New Mexico. John Heaton as chair of the daily energy alliance in New Mexico.
>> We think that the reality is, if Congress sees that a facility is, in fact, licensed and ready to operate, it may change their minds.
>> One congressman says finding an alternative site for the waste is one of the top priorities.
>> It is so easy for people to say no to a solution but not have an alternative. In this case, people can feel that a particular site not good. But if it is incrementally better than where the waste is today, then it has to be considered.
>> But Congress is distracted by elections and there is little hope new legislation on nuclear waste will be passed in the house this year. Meanwhile, a new realtor commission has changed the rules for how long nuclear waste can be stored on site without changing the requirements for how to store it. The citizens oversight has positioned Embassy to have thicker double-walled canisters.
>> The quick quest -- the key question is, we have canisters that have a design life of 40 years. The waste confidence report is that these will remain on-site indefinitely and that is okay. Indefinitely is not 40 years.
>> They said the community must act soon because Edison's plan threatens future generations.
>> The people that have made the decision will be around to deal with it. But unfortunately, there are folks like myself who are not focusing on myself anymore. I am focusing on my grandchildren here. And are we making decisions that are right for them?
>> Allison St. John, KPBS news.
>> Joining me with more on that story is the KPBS North County reporter, Allison St. John. Hello.
>> Glad to be here.
>> Are there any analogs as to what is happening here or are we the first to seriously tackle this issue?
>> Not at all. We are joining a national crisis. There are millions -- billions of tons stacked up on waste depositories on site on plans both operating and decommissioned across the country. Five in California and the west coast. Many more on the East Coast.
>> There are nuclear power plants around the world. Are other countries facing the same problemsthat we in America are facing in terms of what to do with this waste when the plants are closed?
>> Yes. It is an international issue. Many people here in San Diego have been observing what countries in Europe have been doing. Saying that they are taking a different approach. Taking the whole thing much more seriously. And using storage systems that are a good deal more robust than the ones being licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission here.
>> Of the several options you outlined in your story, one is potentially moving this waste to Camp Pendleton. But you reported that the Marines have rejected that idea. What is the rationale for that?
>> The Marines are basically taking the position -- look, you promised to give us back the land as it was in pristine condition and we are holding you to that. There is a possibility that they could have accepted moving the waist up to the Mesa on the other side of the freeway which at least would not be so close to the ocean and vulnerable to sea level rise. But they are claiming that that is needed for training. And they cannot possibly let go of that and they are trying to limit, I think, the remains of this plant, to that little sliver of land between Interstate five and the ocean.
>> And Palo Verde -- the out-of-state plan also says, it does not want our waste. Have you given any indication about what specifically the stumbling block is? They are storing waste already.
>> That is correct. Micah Gary, the attorney pushing for that option, says that really, Southern California Edison -- the chief nuclear officer -- basically just threw out the question at a board meeting and they sort of considered it and took a vote and said, no. So he thinks it needs a lot more consideration and possibly more incentives to encourage that plant to take some of the waste.
>> Pay more money to take this on.
>> Exactly. Wherever he goes, is the question. The question is, where will that go to? Taxpayers have been paying. The way it is working out right now, a lot of tax money is going to paying off utilities around the country because the federal government has not fulfilled its obligation to find a site. And so some utilities are suing and getting money from the treasury to help pay for this.
>> What are the types of federal laws that could be passed to help get over some of these hurdles that are stymieing this for years?
>> Currently, there is a fun. Billions of dollars that have been set aside for nuclear waste disposal. But it is tied specifically to long-term storage, which is at the moment, Yucca Mountain, which has been stalled for years.
>> That is a Nevada plan.
>> That is right. What would need to happen is for Congress to say, okay, we will agree to shorter-term storage, even if we have not yet approved Yucca Mountain. Because Yucca Mountain is a sticking point. It seems like there is no movement on getting that approved. So the attempt is to try to get new legislation that would say, okay, let's spend some of that money on interim storage in the meantime. And at the moment, they are deadlocked on that issue.
>> Turning back to what is happening on the ground now, you reported last week that there is a design flaw, or there was a design flaw. What exactly was the problem?
>> It is interesting. There are some aluminum shims which are inserted into the canisters to hold the nuclear fuel rods upright. To stop them from rattling around. The bottom of the canisters have to have space to allow helium to flow around, to cool the fuel. The pens at the bottom of the spacers change the design. They did get approval from the NRC by going through the expedited process, which reminds me a little bit of the process that led to the design flaws in the steam generators in the first place. But they got the design approved and now they find that that design change has flaws because the pens at the bottom of the canisters are breaking off. Some of them. They found a broken pen and a bench pen. There are plans and other parts of the country finding similar problems.
>> So salt -- SoCal stopped using that and went back to the original. They also said they are not going to try to transfer the fuel that was already in these broken castes into fully functional once?
>> Right. Nobody has ever done that, they were told. Taking fuel out of the canisters and transferring. They would need to put them back into the fuel pools underneath the water -- and on weld the lid. They say it would take 2-3 years to get licensing permission to do that.
>> They seem to not want to take that risk.
>> A lot of people do say it is better to you -- better to move the waste out of the fuel pools and out of the storage. Because if there where an earthquake Orison aisle make, it is more vulnerable. But I think the whole process -- what it is revealing is just how experimental the whole process is. It is like scientists are figuring out how to deal with that as the problems come up, rather than having a foolproof method -- method before they start. Many people say they should have known how to dispose of this before they started generating power using nuclear energy.
>> I have been speaking with Allison St. John. Thank you.
>> My pleasure.