Feelings Run High At Panel Monitoring Decommissioning Of San Onofre

Friday, November 11, 2016
By Alison St John

New federal laws to allow tons of spent nuclear fuel to be moved off the coast of San Diego County have made little headway during this election year.

A community engagement panel convened by the plant’s operator, Southern California Edison, met Thursday in Dana Point. The panel is monitoring the decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which shut down in 2013.

The federal government has failed to agree on a permanent storage site for nuclear waste, so the panel is pushing for new laws to allow temporary storage, known as "consolidated interim storage," in other states.

Panelist and Oceanside City Councilman Jerry Kern said he’s met with San Diego Reps. Darrell Issa and Scott Peters among others.

"Hopefully in 2017, when everybody gets back to work, we’ll have the opportunity to make things happen," Kern said. "Everybody is in support, it’s how do we get that support converted to action."

Two private companies, Areva and Holtec, hope to apply for licenses to construct interim storage for spent nuclear fuel in Texas or New Mexico.

David Victor, chairman of the community engagement panel, acknowledged this could take years.

Meanwhile Edison is proceeding with plans to empty the spent fuel pools and bury tons of radioactive spent fuel in canisters on site, 100 feet from the ocean. Those plans are already underway and are due to happen in 2019.

Community groups who testified at the panel said since Southern California Edison decides the agenda, some people's concerns are not being raised.

Pam Patterson, mayor pro-tem of San Juan Capistrano, interrupted a presentation by Sara Kaminsky of the Orange County Sheriff’s Emergency Management, and clashed with the chairman, David Victor of UC San Diego.

"What are the evacuation plans?" Patterson demanded.

Victor intervened, saying, "I am going to ask you to please stop talking. This information has been circulated to this panel multiple times and I will have it circulated again."

Victor said if the community would not agree to let him run the meetings in a positive way, he could resign.

Charles Langley, who represents a public watchdog group, cited Edison’s poor safety record and said for the plans to work, new technology will have to be developed that does not yet exist. He called for other speakers to address the panel, such as Arnie Gunderson and Daniel Hirsh, both of whom were highly critical of Edison after the leak was reported.

Victor said 32 outside experts were invited to address the panel. He said his commitment is to push for consolidated interim storage.

"My goal is, by the time the 20-year licensing time is up, to have it all out of here," he said. He said his next step is to write to the California Department of Energy to urge them to consider a strategy for achieving laws allowing interim storage.

Questions arose at the meeting about how long the industry has used dry cask storage to date (about 20 years). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has declared it safe to store nuclear waste in dry casks for a hundred years or indefinitely.

In response to a question about how sea level rise might affect the canisters buried on site, Jim Madigan, director of safety culture at Edison, said the California State Lands Commission included a study of sea level rise in its environmental impact report of the plan. He said Edison will take full responsibility for the spent fuel.

"As long as there is fuel there, we will be responsible," he said.

Madigan told the panel Edison has won $304 million from the Department of Energy in litigation over the failure of the federal government to find a permanent repository. The California Public Utilities Commission will decide how that money is spent and how much might be returned to rate payers.

A member of a band of Mission Indians spoke to the panel about their commitment to protect the land, and said they would like to offer their spiritual help. Victor said he would accept it.