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Safety Concerns Mount As Edison Awaits NRC's OK To Bury Radioactive Waste

January 2, 2019 1:42 p.m.

GUEST: Len Hering, former head of the Navy in San Diego

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Related Story: Safety Concerns Mount As Edison Awaits NRC's OK To Bury Radioactive Waste


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.

Southern California Edison wants to resume burying nuclear waste Senan afraid this month. But as more details emerge about the near miss accident at the plant last summer. Opposition is mounting and it's not just from anti-nuclear activists. The distinctive domes of the Senate over a nuclear power plant that's 50 miles north of downtown San Diego will eventually disappear as the plant has decommissioned but the radioactive spent fuel being moved from cooling ponds to concrete bunkers by the beach may be there indefinitely because Congress has not found a long term solution to storing high level nuclear waste.

The former head of the Navy in San Diego retired admiral Len Herring is one of the voices sounding the alarm about the way. Southern California Edison is going about storing spent nuclear fuel at San ofri.

I'm an advocate for nuclear energy. I'm not a believer that it needs to disappear. But the proper handling of the material is what we are talking about here. The decommissioning of the songs plant involves the handling and the storage of nuclear waste in a fashion that is for all practical purposes not being done safely for us.

In a lab at UCSD mass spectrometers humming in the background. Physicist Subrata Chakraborti feels the same way about the iconic Santa interface site.

I have a kind of soft corner to a new pair because it's a one of the biggest energy source. And when I came here like 16 years ago I saw this nice dome and then I was fascinated about it.

But after Southern California Edison had a near miss accident last August for moving the nuclear waste Chakraborti agreed to work with physicist Tom English to analyze potential problems with the way the operation is being conducted with a model he demonstrates the challenge of lowering a 17 foot tall canister loaded with 54 tons of spent nuclear fuel into the round hole of a concrete storage pump.

Now declares between this canister and this hole is like a quarter inch.

That's why a canister got stuck on an inner guiding and narrowly avoided falling 18 feet to the bone from the home. But Chakravorti and English point out that a nuclear regulatory commission report on the near miss accident says virtually all of the 29 canisters already loaded probably got scratched repeatedly on the way down.

Every time you move a giant wave of 54 tons bangs into it it makes a god.

Yeah we are in the 21st century and the technique they are using the Egyptian 2000 years ago they use the same technique Chakravorti says Hulta International the company that designed the storage system has included no sensors to detect potential damage. English and Chakraborti say scratches on the canisters make them vulnerable to chemical reactions that could result in corrosion cracking over time because the cylinders are not that is the only five inch thick at a community engagement panel meeting in November.

Tom Palmisano of Southern California Edison responded to a question about the problem of leaving scratched canisters in storage.

We don't see that as an immediate issue. The tractors you shallow well below and sometimes produce food scratch. So quite frankly we don't have a short term control becomes a long term major management concern.

But that's exactly the problem says Chakraborti who notes that there is no guarantee or even likelihood the waste will be removed within the next few decades.

The problem is right now the bottom of the cylinder is 18 inches above the mean sea level. And now after 50 years when the sea levels rise it is no longer a dry storage. It can be a waste storage. We have all the technology. And we should do better than this.

Truly the more we learn about what's happening and how it's being done the more I am fearful that we as a population are being protected by the procedures that are in place.

Herring is calling for a halt to the process of burying the remaining 44 canisters of spent nuclear fuel.

We need to stop take a break. Go back to square one. Forced the individuals to do the right study with the right solutions so that it does not put San Diego at risk.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said it will not give Southern California Edison the go ahead to resume burying the waste until after its hold a public conference. Joining us now is retired admiral Len Herring. Thank you so much for coming in. Good morning and Happy New Year. Happy New Year to you too. So you mentioned in the story that you see the problems emanating basically from a desire to save money. Can you expand on that.

Well it's clear that when you take a look at what is happening is that the quick choice of action for both as the city NERC was to take the site that was right there. Knowing that there are alternative opportunities even on the site that exists the choice was clearly digging in the sand put it in the ground real quick and be done with it. There's even admission by individuals that the expediency by which the schedule was created was to make absolutely certain that they could get it in the ground as quickly as possible.

Now if it were to be moved do you think there's enough money in the in the 4 billion dollar or so decommissioning fund to cover the cost of moving it again. Not my problem.

You know the fact that the business decision was made in expediency and not having a true understanding of the safety that should be borne by the individuals who made that decision and whether or not it is or is not the responsibility of the board or the NRC that's yet to be determined.

And basically the federal government should be taking responsibility for this and paying for it at some point in the future.

At some point in time there's you know the number of waivers that have been authorized the number of decisions that have been made to allow this Expedia this expedited disposal needs to be held accountable and whoever is responsible for making those decisions should be told should be made to pay for the debt.

Now when you were the Navy mayor here in San Diego you presumably had some responsibilities to do with nuclear energy. And there doesn't seem to be the same problem from military nuclear waste. Can you help us understand why it is that commercial nuclear waste is having such a hard time finding a place to be stored.

Yeah well you know I can't admit to having no hands on experience in the energy sector as we know. But when I was younger I was a nuclear weapons safety officer handling officer and security officer. So I do understand the processes. And more importantly the necessity to make sure that both handling and procedures are all done properly. The more I learn about what's happening on site the more I'm scared that individuals who are not certified or truly understanding the implications associated with the movement of nuclear materials are actually being used come to find out that the ocean inspectors are standard industrial engineer inspectors they have no specific credibility in the nucular handling world.

So if you don't even have inspectors who are there to make sure the people who are hired off the street to do the movement that's something that the Navy would never do. We would never go through that process and we you know a nuclear weapon or the material in our reactors is almost minuscule compared to what we're dealing with here in San Onofre. But yet the procedures for what we did were 500 times what I'm seeing or hearing are being applied in the Senate for disposal effort and more importantly I think what we find out is that when the plant was shuttered the true nucular experienced personnel within that plant were let go.

The disposal of the material is not being done by the same group of individuals including the individuals who are ultimately responsible for it. They are not nucular certified trained and experienced individuals.

Let's just talk about the location because that is really one of the points you're making is that this is the wrong place and you talk about we need to stop burying it and think again and go back to basics. But some people say that it's actually more dangerous to leave the material in the spent fuel pools. That's where it caused problems at Fukushima for example. So how do you respond to people who say no we've got to move it as soon as possible.

Well the issue here is that we've made some we've made a series of bad decisions and those bad decisions should not be allowed to complete because once it's in the ground as you know for the former head of the NRC has said it will stay there for wherever. So if we just allow them to continue to do the process now we have to deal with. OK so what do we do with this material and what happens. I think the thing that is the most concerning here is we're dealing with what some people believe to be a potential industrial accident but this is not like any other industrial accident on the face of the earth.

I mean you know we've had petroleum plants that have blown up in three days after the fires out. We've got people in it. If we have an incident in San Onofre in this particular facility it'll be 100000 years before we're able to approach the site. So this is not a nucular incident or this is not an industrial incident like any other that we deal with on a regular basis and that should be the biggest concern.

It's hard to even conceive really of the of the fallout as it were. If something were to happen I understand that there is an economic analysis that's been done by MQ to company correct. That does policy analysis for public and private sector sponsored by the society Lawrence Foundation. Can you give us an idea of what their initial findings are.

Well what we looked what they looked at was what would be the impact if there were to be an accident if there were to be a minor explosion a leak or whatever and we we looked at what was reasonable and we said well 50 miles because that's really what you're talking about when you consider nuclear fallout and potentially that's hopefully that there's not a massive upper atmosphere a transfer of if there were to be a major explosion. But it appears as though the initial impact is somewhere between 13 and 14 trillion dollars because the period of time.

And that's only 50 years so we are not we're not talking about I mean again when if or when something should happen we are talking about the immediate cessation of virtually everything in 50 mile range.

Do you see the danger as something that is likely or or or possible even in the short term or do you see this more as really a long term issue.

I think the problem is we don't know. And that's why I'm calling for a stop. We don't know. There is controversy over the types of containers which also concerns me. They're using thin walled containers in which there is a requirement under the Nuclear Regulatory Safety concessions that the internal and external aspects of that container are to be monitored. These containers do not allow for the monitoring of that material inside the container. So we don't know what's happening how long they would and how long they are lasting.

Well Len thanks so much for coming in.

I really do appreciate I hope that people take a little more awareness of what's happening. And I would call for individuals to contact their local congressmen.

But this is a serious safety issue that people need to be concerned about that is retired Admiral Allen