The California Coastal Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to grant Southern California Edison a 20-year permit for an expanded nuclear waste storage facility at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in northern San Diego County.
Officials at Rosemead-based Edison, which operates and is the majority owner of the idled nuclear plant, said the current 14-year-old storage area is nearing capacity.
SCE estimated that it will need up to 80 more steel canisters encased in concrete, a technology known as dry storage. About two-thirds of San Onofre's used fuel is currently stored on site in steel-lined, concrete storage pools known as wet storage.
Environmental groups argued that it makes no sense to store the spent fuel right next to the shoreline in an earthquake-prone area.
Edison, however, contended that a partially below-ground concrete monolith that will house the dry storage canisters exceeds state earthquake requirements, and will also be designed to protect against fire, tsunamis and - with it's lower profile - against possible terrorist action.
Commission staff recommended that the permit be approved, in part because the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it meets safety standards.
Staff also said the federal government hasn't been able to provide a location for spent nuclear fuel to be stored. A proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been held up for years because of political opposition.
"That's the crux of the problem — the federal government has failed to designate a permanent repository for the spent nuclear fuel," said Coastal Commissioner and San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox.
"It's something they've been working on for 20 or more years, and it's something that's not unique to (San Onofre) — it's something a number of other closed nuclear power plants across the country are having to deal with."
Commission staff set special conditions on the permit. One required Edison to return in 20 years for an amendment to retain, relocate or remove the facility.
Commissioner Mary Shallenberger of Clements California asked why the commission would have to wait 20 years to get an inspection report on the storage site.
Mark Lombard, Director of Spent Fuel Management at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, admitted that there is currently no way to inspect the stainless steel storage casks for cracking. He said robots are being developed to do the job.
Tom Palmisano, Decommissioning Chief Nuclear Officer for Southern California Edison, said Edison has a goal of developing an inspection protocol by 2022, to inspect existing casks.
Cox requested that inspection reports be given to the Coastal Commission as soon as they are available.
Cox said his vote was a difficult decision and one he thinks about every time he drives past San Onofre.
"I wish that there were other options that we had available now," Cox said, "but frankly, I don’t see them."
After the vote Cox requested that the Coastal Commssion follow the example of San Diego County Supervisors and write a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Energy asking that the spent fuel be removed from the San Onofre plant as soon as possible. On Sept. 15, San Diego County supervisors approved a resolution that makes a similar request.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating State has not operated since January 2012, when a small, non-injury leak occurred. In June of 2013 SCE decided to retire the two reactors rather than attempt to develop a costly start-up procedure.