Debate Over Nuclear Waste Storage Could Change With New Administration

Wednesday, January 25, 2017
By Alison St John
Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Above: The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in northern San Diego County is shown in this undated photo.

Plans to store San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s spent fuel in canisters 100 feet from the ocean are running a little behind schedule.

The operator of San Onofre, Southern California Edison, plans to start moving the facility’s radioactive spent fuel rods from cooling ponds to dry cask storage later this year or early next year.

The waste will join tons of other spent nuclear fuel in dry cask storage right next to the plant, with a wall less than 30 feet high between it and the beach.

The time line is a little delayed. Previous plans called for the waste to start moving out of the cooling ponds early this year. The canisters are a new design and security plans are still being put in place.

But with a new Republican administration in Washington, the debate over where to store SONG's nuclear waste most likely won’t change.

UC San Diego’s David Victor, chair of Edison’s Community Engagement Panel, said the bigger issue is the delay in finding a long-term solution for nuclear waste.

Congress has failed to decide on a permanent storage site. In 2010, President Obama put a stop to the proposed nuclear waste storage site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Vista) has sponsored legislation to allow interim consolidated nuclear storage sites in places like Texas and New Mexico.

With Republicans now in a strong majority in Washington, Victor said Yucca Mountain may move back to the front burner.

“There’s always going to be some parts of the Democratic Party that’s going to be opposed to any solution here, in part because they want to stop nuclear power,” he said. “And there will be some part of the Republican Party that will be opposed to any kind of interim solution, because all they want is Yucca Mountain.”

“It does appear that any new legislation that’s going to open consolidated interim storage facilities is also going to require a restart of the Yucca Mountain facility,” Victor said. “And I think that’s what’s shaping up at Capitol Hill right now."

However, when or if legislation passes, either interim or permanent storage sites will take years to approve. In the meantime, Edison has hired Holtec International to build canisters for the fuel rods, and is installing new security systems.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will monitor the process of moving the spent fuel from the cooling ponds and into the casks, with dry runs starting later this year or next.