The San Diego County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to ask the federal government to remove and relocate nuclear waste being stored at the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
The supervisors — except for Greg Cox who excused himself from the vote because of his involvement with the California Coastal Commission — voted to draft and send a letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz urging the "prompt removal and relocation" outside of San Diego County of the spent fuel, which they note is now only a couple of hundred yards from Interstate 5, a busy rail corridor and the Pacific Ocean.
The proposal by Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Ron Roberts says more than 1,400 metric tons of "incredibly hot and radioactive" nuclear waste from more than 45 years of operations is stored at the plant, which was never meant to be a permanent repository.
The Department of Energy has been unable to designate a permanent nuclear waste storage site in the United States. A proposed location in Nevada has been held up for decades because of stiff political opposition.
The supervisors called for action from the federal government, which they say has failed to enforce legislation outlined in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
"To locate spent nuclear fuel on the coast in a high earthquake zone makes no sense," Supervisor Ron Roberts said. "Our focus is putting pressure on the federal government to do what it promised many, many years ago."
The supervisors contend that the waste poses a health risk to residents and a potential target for terrorists.
Former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who has been critical of Southern California Edison's actions regarding the closure, said he worried about the threat to Southern California residents.
"If the waste is allowed to remain on the beach it will become a permanent storage dump that is vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis, corrosion and terrorist attacks," Aguirre said. "We don't have the equipment, the personnel, or the training to respond to this type of emergency."
Aguirre praised the supervisors for taking a political stand on the issue.
“The governor hasn’t said a thing about this,” Aguirre said. “The legislature hasn’t said a thing about this. This is an act of political courage."
Supervisor Bill Horn allowed Aguirre an unscheduled 10-minute presentation and agreed with him.
“He’s right. We need to speak up. Nobody is addressing this issue. Edison has a huge problem, SDG&E has a huge problem and we as the public have a huge problem,” Horn said. “I don’t know how loud our voice will be, but our delegation in Washington certainly should bring this issue up. We need to get this fuel out of here before these containers start to leak.”
Southern California Edison agreed with the supervisors that the waste should not be stored at San Onofre permanently.
"The federal government has simply failed to act," Southern California Edison Decommissioning Vice President Thomas Palmisano said. "Virtually every nuclear facility in the country has no where to store the fuel. We're in full agreement this — San Onofre is no place for longtime storage of spent fuel."
The nuclear waste is anticipated to be stored on-site at San Onofre until 2048, when the federal government should take action to move it to an interim or permanent storage facility, according to Palmisano.
In response to a question from Supervisor Dave Roberts, Palmisano said he has 50 canisters loaded with spent fuel already on site. He said about one third of the spent fuel at San Onofre could be shipped immediately if an interim storage site were found, and the rest must remain on site to cool down sufficiently to transport.
David Victor of UCSD, who chairs a Citizens’ Engagement Panel on Decommissioning San Onofre, said he welcomed the supervisors’ action but warned that the Department of Energy also wants to find a permanent storage for spent nuclear fuel: the question is how. Victor spoke about the possibility of finding consolidated interim storage in New Mexico or Texas.
Supervisor Ron Roberts added to the final motion. He asked that a board subcommittee be established that will continue to work on getting the nuclear waste out of San Diego County, “and pursue this aggressively.“
"We're delivering a wake up call," Roberts said. "We've got a lot of levels of government that are not acknowledging this is a major problem. Doing nothing year after year means it will be that much longer until a solution is resolved."
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating State has been idle since January 2012, when a small, non-injury leak occurred. Edison, the operator and majority owner of the plant, later decided to retire the two reactors rather than follow a costly start-up procedure.