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San Onofre’s Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Plan Worries Some Residents

Video by Katie Schoolov

Southern California Edison announced Thursday which containers it will use to store tons of radioactive spent fuel at San Onofre. The nuclear power plant was shut down last year after a small radiation leak was discovered. KPBS North County Bureau Editor Alison St John says questions remain about the best way to store the toxic waste, which will remain on site indefinitely.

Southern California Edison has announced which containers it will use to store tons of radioactive spent fuel at the San Onofre nuclear plant.

Almost 4,000 highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies will have to be stored indefinitely on the narrow strip of land between Interstate 5 and the ocean, where the San Onofre nuclear power plant now stands. That’s because political gridlock nixed a federal long-term storage site for nuclear waste in Nevada.

A video on Southern California Edison’s website describes what happens to the fuel rods, which remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. It describes how the fuel is "enclosed in steel–lined, concrete pools filled with water called spent fuel pools, and sealed, stainless steel canisters that are housed in reinforced concrete structures — this is called dry cask storage."

Edison, which operates San Onofre, announced Thursday that it has selected Holtec International to provide the stainless steel canisters that the utility will use to store the plant's spent fuel from Units 2 and 3. Here's how Edison, in a news release, described Holtec's canisters:

“Holtec's HI-STORM UMAX underground storage system features corrosion-resistant, stainless-steel fuel canisters topped with a 24,000-pound steel and concrete lid. The canisters will be encased in a concrete monolith.”

Photo credit: Decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

A rendering of how storage tanks are placed.

But Donna Gilmore, who lives in San Clemente, about five miles from San Onofre, is worried the stainless steel casks are not robust enough for indefinite, long-term storage on the site.

The nuclear power industry has used the canisters for three decades but always with the understanding that the U.S. Department of Energy would take the waste when a permanent, long-term storage site was established. That solution, however, remains in political limbo with no permanent waste storage site on the horizon.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also ruled earlier this year that radioactive waste can be stored on nuclear plant sites indefinitely.

"We’re looking at the waste sitting here for potentially hundreds of years," Gilmore said, pointing from her home to the coastline below. “We don’t know how many years it’s going to sit here, and the NRC only certifies these casks for 20 years.”

Gilmore founded a website devoted to her research on how to decommission San Onofre safely. She was recently invited by the NRC to speak at a regulatory conference in Maryland.

Cask Alternatives

She asked Mark Lombard, director of the NRC's Division of Spent Fuel Storage, to delay Edison’s decision about which dry casks to use.

Photo credit: NRC

Mark Lombard, director of the NRC's Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Donna Gilmore of sanonofresafety.org

“Set higher storage standards now that we have this extended storage requirement,” she said at the hearing. “We need you to take the leadership role to raise the standards. Don’t worry about what we have now, what everybody owns. We have to think in terms of what we need.”

Gilmore said the casks used by most of the nuclear industry in the United States are stainless steel and less than an inch thick. Casks already in use in Europe, she said, are cast iron and are up to 20 inches thick. U.S. companies are going with the thinner casks because they are cheaper, Gilmore said.

“The German design may be much more competitively priced,” she said at the hearing. “But we won't know until we can find a customer that will seriously allow them to bid.

Tom Palmisano, chief nuclear officer at San Onofre, said the decision to go with the stainless steel casks had nothing to do with money.

Southern California Edison also agreed to speak to the German vendor of the cast iron canisters, but the company has never applied for a license from the NRC to allow the casks to transport nuclear waste in the United States, Palmisano said.

“So that tells me there was not a lot of confidence on their part they could successfully license the cask or the canister in this country,” he said.

It’s a Catch-22. Edison wants a product that is already licensed and ready to go to meet its tight decommissioning schedule, but the maker of the thicker casks doesn’t want to go through the NRC’s rigorous licensing process without a guaranteed contract.

Palmisano said in a phone interview that Holtec's canisters have been licensed for storage and transportation of nuclear fuel, but the head of the NRC’s Spent Fuel Licensing Branch said the agency has not approved a transportation package for the UMAX canister system.

Community Engagement Panel Report

David Victor, an international relations professor at UC San Diego, is chairman of the Community Engagement Panel set up by Edison to engage the public in the decommissioning plan.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

David Victor, chair of Edison's Community Engagement Panel.

Victor released a report on Wednesday that says it's time to move on from the debate over casks.

“We could end up with the worst case outcome, which is that we’re using a cask that nobody else in the industry is using, and nobody else is buying in the United States. … We might have something on site that we’re stuck with,” he said.

Victor said it’s safer to stick with the technology already licensed in the United States so there is technical support and the ability some day transport the material off site.

He said he has spent months speaking with industry experts, and many — including nuclear watchdog groups — say it is preferable to move spent fuel out of fuel pools and into dry casks as soon as possible.

Future Cask Monitoring

But Gilmore is concerned that because the thinner canisters are inside thick concrete over-packs, it’s impossible to even inspect them for cracking.

“Because it’s so impossible to do right now, none of the canisters at San Onofre or anywhere else have been inspected for cracks or corrosion," she said. "Nowhere in the country, they’ve got thousands of these things, none of them have been inspected.”

Victor said his research has shown him that the nuclear industry is aware of the need to find a way to inspect fuel storage casks over the long term.

“It is no longer the case where the inspection is being done in a way where people are sort of looking at part of the cask and sending in a postcard and saying everything’s fine,” Victor said. “This is a different world.”

Victor said in his report that the nuclear industry needs to be more open about its strategies for dealing with future problems, which could be catastrophic when dealing with highly radioactive materials.

He said he would like to see Edison make the San Onofre site the focus of research into the latest decommissioning technology. He also wants to know about inspection protocols more than 20 years into the future.

“Do we know how to put spent nuclear waste into casks securely and then develop those monitoring systems and apply those monitoring systems?” he said. “I’ve become confident we know how to do that. Do we know how to deal with all contingencies that are going to come up along the way? I think everybody knows that things are going to happen for which the answers are not yet known.”

Victor said he already knows one of his priorities for the Community Engagement Panel in 2015: to discuss what communities can do to push the federal government to honor their promise and locate long term storage for nuclear waste. That would remove highly radioactive spent fuel from locations near where millions of people live, including San Onofre.

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