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Nuclear Fuel To Be Stored At San Onofre As Part Of Decommissioning

San Onofre from the State Park, April 2013
Nicholas McVicker
San Onofre from the State Park, April 2013
San Onofre Decommission
Nuclear Fuel To Be Stored At San Onofre As Part Of Decommissioning
GUESTS:William Alley, co-author, Too Hot To Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste Rosemarie Alley, co-author, Nuclear Fuel To Be Stored At San Onofre As Part Of Decommissioning

FUDGE: In our continuing coverage KPBS, we've been closely following the problems at the San Onofre nuclear power plant. In 2012, excessive wear on the tubes forced the plant's operator to shut down the plant and try to find a fix. After a year and a half of being offline, not producing any power, the decision was made to shut down San Onofre permanently. So what happens to the spent fuel, nuclear waste, that's left on-set? My guests are the coauthors of "Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of Nuclear Waste." Thank you for coming in. Why is this nuclear fuel kept on-site at the plants? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Well, spent nuclear fuel is extremely hot when it comes out of the reactor. Which is why for a minimum of five years, it must be submerged in water to block the radiation. So that's why. That's the short answer right there. FUDGE: That's why you can't take it to the landfill. And I'm curious, Bill, what's the difference between nuclear fuel and nuclear waste? BILL ALLEY: Nuclear fuel becomes waste when it comes out of the nuclear plant. But actually the waste is made up of a number of different types of waste. So it's a more generic term. FUDGE: What does nuclear waste have to do to become safe to be around? BILL ALLEY: Well, spent nuclear fuel as nuclear waste is dangerous for about 1 million years. FUDGE: 1 million years? BILL ALLEY: Yeah. So you have to essentially find a place to isolate it from the environment for that long. FUDGE: Rosemarie? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Well, certainly one issue that's been discussed a great deal is -- I call it the certainty guarantee that we have to find a site that there's not going to be any doubt that this waste will stay secure for this kind of geologic timeframe, and realistically, there's no way you're going to have that kind of certainty anywhere on the planet. I think people just have to accept the fact that there's uncertainty when you're talking about this kind of problem. FUDGE: I didn't expect you to say one million years in terms of how long it takes before it's safe. But one thing you hear when people talk about this is these fuel rods need to cool. They need to cool. Why is that important? BILL ALLEY: Well, one of the aspects of this type of waste, it's extremely hot when it comes out because radioactivity is hot. And that also is one of the challenges in finding a proper place to bury it. It remains hot for a long, long time. FUDGE: How many plants in the United States actually have fuel that's stored onsite? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Well, there are 75 sites in 33 states where there are pools or dry casks where the spent fuel is being stored. With San Onofre now shut down, it joins the company of ten other sites. There's 11 in all now in the U.S. where there's stranded nuclear waste. In other words the nuclear power plant has been shut down or decommissioned. And the waste is indefinitely, up to a century, possibly 300 years, will be surrounded onsite. FUDGE: What about the other plants? Why is the waste not stranded onsite? BILL ALLEY: They're still operating. FUDGE: But they're in the same boat we are; correct? There's no place to put this stuff? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: That's correct. FUDGE: What about the concern that some people have storing the spent fuel rods on the site at San Onofre? I talked to a number of people who said you're close to the ocean which is not good, it's in a seismic zone. BILL ALLEY: Most power plants are near large bodies of water or near major cities. So it's not necessarily unique in that way. Seismic hazards have been a concern for a long time. And the Fukushima disaster raised the issue of tsunamis. FUDGE: And with regard to keeping them onsite, Rosemarie, I think you said they need to be put in pools first; is that right? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: That's correct. FUDGE: But eventually do they go in dry cask, and if so, why? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Well, many of the spent fuel pools in the U.S. now contain 4-5 times the amount of waste they were designed to handle because of the backlog, because there's no repository or even an interim storage site where you and move this waste. So we've got a huge backlog here. Over the past 20 years or so, they have been moving some of it. 75% of our spent nuclear waste is still in cooling pools. 25% has been moved into dry casks. Basically they got to start cleaning out these pools. FUDGE: And are the dry casks just a cheaper way to store it? A more practical way to store it? BILL ALLEY: They're actually fairly expensive which is why there's been a slowness of moving from the pools to the dry casks. It's definitely a safer way to store the waste. But it's not going to last for a million years. And right at the moment, we don't know when they'll be moved from the sites. FUDGE: Tell us about Yucca Mountain. ROSEMARIE ALLEY: It was a very unique choice globally in terms of where to put this waste in terms of a geologic repository underground. Because Yucca Mountain, the west would have gone into the unsaturated zone, in other words above the water table. There's a downside to this. But the strong plus was that it would have been possible to monitor, and if there was a problem, retrieve the waste for several hundred years out. And that's a significant issue when you're doing something you've never done before, when you put the waste below the water table, it's much more difficult if not impossible to monitor it, and if there was a problem, to retrieve it. FUDGE: And at Yucca Mountain, it would have been above? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Above the water table. FUDGE: And Yucca Mountain I'm assuming is in Nevada, in the middle of nowhere. So somebody said hey! Great place to put nuclear waste! ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Yeah, it borders the Nevada test site. It's interesting that many people don't realize that in the 1950s, are the United States did above-ground nuclear testing for about ten years. Nearly 100 atomic weights were detonated above ground at the Nevada test site. There were an additional 900 underground tests. So we're talking about real estate values are pretty much shot for all eternity at the Nevada test site. [ LAUGHTER ] FUDGE: And when was the last time Yucca Mountain was considered as a place to put nuclear spent fuel? How long ago was this that we were having these discussions? BILL ALLEY: Between about 1982 and 2008, we had discussions. And it was actually a license application that had been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. FUDGE: As recently as 2008. BILL ALLEY: Yes. FUDGE: And I assume the people of Nevada just said no way? BILL ALLEY: Well, unfortunately the way it was presented to Nevada, Yucca Mountain was select happened as the only site for a potential repository in the United States in 1987 through amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. FUDGE: And this would have been the place where all the spent fuel would have gone? BILL ALLEY: It would have allowed 50,000 metric tons of fuel. Which is about the amount we have now. FUDGE: Do you think that Yucca Mountain was a reasonable compromise? Was it a good plan? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: It's hard to speculate. Certainly the 8,600 page license application that was finally delivered to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 2008? BILL ALLEY: 2008. ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Was in the process of being reviewed. This was of course a very considerable review. It was shut down for political reasons. And many people are of the opinion -- I do join in this opinion, that the American people deserve to know whether Yucca Mountain is considered a "quote site" or not. And again, keeping in mind that there's no ultimate safety over the timeframe we're talking about. FUDGE: Bill, what did you think of the plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain? BILL ALLEY: Like any site, it had its strengths and weaknesses. I think it had -- no one had ever demonstrated it was a bad site. So the best science can do is look at what might happen. You can't have 100% assurance. But nobody had ever pointed to a fatal flaw. FUDGE: When we've been talking about the spent fuel at San Onofre, a lot of people have said that that spent fuel is going to be there indefinitely. When you hear the word indefinitely, what does that mean to you? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Well, to be more specific, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now quite comfortable with leaving the waste onsite at the decommissioned reactor site for 120 years. They recently have begun discussing the possibility of leaving it onsite for 300 years. Now, that's a pretty extended definition of indefinite. We don't really know. But certainly I think it's safe to say many decades as things now stand. FUDGE: Since 2008, has there been any discussion of finding another site where we can store this waste? BILL ALLEY: There was a blue ribbon commission, kind of a classic government copout if you will, that put forth a plan to basically start over, using a consent-based approach to find another site. In addition the Obama administration says they'll have an interim storage site by 2021 which is just eight years from now, despite the past failures to find such a site. FUDGE: And we'll believe that when we see it, I guess. BILL ALLEY: Absolutely. FUDGE: What about the people who live in San Diego and Orange County? Should we be concerned about the fact that this spent fuel is being stored on that site? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Well, I think when you're talking about many people consider this the most dangerous substance on the planet, it's certainly are up there. To have this sitting around for an extended period of time, who knows what the security will actually be? To my mind, it's just asking for trouble. FUDGE: What is the solution? What do we have to do to solve this problem? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Well, we need to get this stuff underground. And it really -- Finland and Sweden are actually both moving toward opening geologic repositories. Finland is actually under construction. FUDGE: I was going to ask you, what are other countries doing to solve this problem? ROSEMARIE ALLEY: Well, and Finland and Sweden are moving ahead in full knowledge that there is no ultimate certainty about this. There is always going to be uncertainty involved with this. But that the only response -- we've opened Pandora's box here with high level nuclear waste. That's what we've done. And so you just have to say, what's the best most responsible choice we can make? And that is to get it underground in the best possible site you can find and do it in a timely manner. BILL ALLEY: I would say the United States along with the United Kingdom and Germany are probably at the back of the pack. We're all starting over, we're still struggling.

Nuclear Fuel To Be Stored At San Onofre As Part Of Decommissioning
Edison has nearly $3 billion in a decommissioning fund. About two dozen nuclear U.S. nuclear plants have already been decommissioned.

Chief Nuclear Officer Peter Dietrich today urged San Onofre workers to continue protecting the health and safety of the public as Southern California Edison shuts down the nuclear power plant.

The internal email was a reminder of the lengthy, costly and delicate decommissioning work that lies ahead for the plant.

Edison Chief Executive Officer Ted Craver said it could be months before spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre is removed to cooling ponds, then stored in dry casks to be kept onsite. The federal government doesn't yet have a place for spent nuclear fuel to be housed other than at individual plants.


David Lochbaum is director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project. He said the rest of San Onofre will likely be surveyed and any portions that are radioactive will be treated and sent to a licensed radioactive waste dump.

"One of the things that works in Edison's favor is approximately two dozen reactors have already gone through decommissioning so there's less and less uncertainty about how to do that task," Lochbaum said.

Decommissioning a nuclear plant costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Craver said the company has a $2.7 billion decommissioning fund. Daniel Hirsch, a UC Santa Cruz lecturer on nuclear policy, says the time it takes could vary.

"They could start this in the next year and over a period of five years or so, they could decommission the reactor. Or, they could say 'we're going to mothball it and we won't start for half a century,'" Hirsch said.

Corrected: November 30, 2023 at 3:21 AM PST
KPBS' Tom Fudge, Patty Lane and Peggy Pico contributed to this segment.