Talks continue to find a storage site for radioactive waste away from San Onofre nuclear power plant. Unless there is an agreement, millions of pounds of the toxic material will be partially buried near the shoreline at San Onofre. KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma recently spoke to Tom English on the beach near San Onofre. He is a one-time advisor to former President Jimmy Carter on high-level nuclear waste disposal.
Q: You’re a nuclear waste expert who’s given talks at the White House on this topic. You think Edison’s plan is a bad idea, why?
A: Several reasons. One is they’re basically going to put the stuff in a thin storage container which probably will have some problems with corrosion given this ocean environment here. The second idea is they’re going to store it such that it will be about 100 feet from the water and a few inches above the groundwater table which is totally ridiculous. As the sea level rises, what will happen is the bottom of the containers will corrode.
Q: Why do you think Edison wants to use this dry cask storage method and actually got the backing to do it from the California Coastal Commission?
A: What happened is our attitude toward storage of spent fuel in a fuel pool changed with Fukushima. We had two pools melt down completely. And this scared everybody and caused a big furor and caused them to want to do something better. So it is a very good idea to take the fuel out of the pool and put it into dry storage. It’s just the choices that they made here were awful, far worse than leaving it in the spent fuel pool.
Q: You’re also worried about Edison’s San Onofre nuclear waste storage plan because you think it’s especially vulnerable to terrorism. Tell me about that.
A: If you leave the spent fuel in the spent fuel pool, you have two large concrete structures surrounding the spent fuel pool that will partially protect it against an attack. When you bring it out here near the ocean on the beach, what you have is no real protection. So a terrorist could find this to be a fairly easy target and if something were to happen here we would evacuate about 50 miles worth of people around San Onofre which would basically shut down the economy of Southern California.
Q: Dr. English, what are some of the alternatives to storing the waste at San Onofre?
A: There are three main ones. One is to simply move it to another Southern California Edison site like in Arizona. That way you’d at least be away from the beach. And it’s already licensed for this sort of thing. Another alternative would be to move it across the street to Camp Pendleton where it’s surrounded by a bunch of Marines and you wouldn’t have any overflights of airplanes so it would be much safer there from any kind of terrorist attack. A third alternative would be to go to Yucca Mountain where we know a lot about the geology of the area and basically make a part of it into temporary interim storage. And you could take all this waste and store it there for 100 years while they figure out how to solve the long-term problem and I think the three of those are much better than what we have here.
Q: If a storage site away from San Onofre can’t be found and the waste ends up being stored here for the long haul, there’s the matter of sea level rise. Projections show that San Onofre will be inundated by seawater by the turn of the century. What kind of threat does that pose to humans and to the sea?
A: Well, if you have these canisters sitting in seawater it’s much the same as dumping the high-level waste into the ocean. And so this has a severe threat on both the aquatic life and human life.
Dr. English, thank you so much for speaking to me today.
Well, thanks very much. I enjoyed it.