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Rising Seas Could Swamp The Shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Plant By Next Century

Surfers pass in front of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, June 7, 2013.

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Surfers pass in front of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, June 7, 2013.

The plant’s majority owner, Southern California Edison, does not believe it should have to worry about rising sea levels beyond a couple of decades from now, even though millions of pounds of waste might still be stored at the site.

Southern California Edison’s plan to store 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste at the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station has citizen activist Ray Lutz on edge.

“It’s only 100 feet from the seawall to the edge of where the deposit is,” Lutz said.

The permit from the California Coastal Commission for the storage is for 20 years.

But Lutz contends that the permit is practically permanent because there’s no long-term nuclear waste storage site in the United States.

“They don’t know if it will be removed in 2051 or even for many decades after that,” Lutz said.

And yet in March of 2015, when the coastal commission asked Edison to elaborate on a sea level rise scenario in 2100 at San Onofre, the company responded by saying it “does not believe that consideration of impacts beyond 2051 is reasonable or necessary.”

Reported by Katie Schoolov

Even so, Edison still answered the coastal commission with a projection 83 years from now but it offers little comfort.

Edison wrote that the San Onofre site is expected to be inundated by the turn of the next century if there is no seawall. And while a seawall exists now, the coastal commission has not approved upgrading it to protect the planned radioactive waste deposit.

“You’re saying the plant is going to be inundated with water within the time frame when it might very well be there,” said consumer lawyer Mike Aguirre. “Does that really make a lot of sense?”

KPBS reached out to Edison, but the company declined to answer questions about why it didn’t think it was reasonable or necessary to consider what sea level rise would look like at San Onofre past 2051. The company instead referred questions to the coastal commission. A coastal commission spokeswoman did not respond directly to a question about Edison’s stance.

RELATED: Coastal Commission Met Privately With Edison A Year Before Public San Onofre Waste Storage Vote

When it comes to sea level rise, California is particularly vulnerable.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor Helen Fricker said as the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica thaw out, California could bear the brunt of the rise -- as much as 30 percent more than other areas. She said that’s because of gravity and the way the Earth rotates.

“In the next three to five decades that could really start to ramp up and we might start to see significant sea rise here in California,” Fricker said.

How significant, she said, also depends on emissions and global average temperatures.

“There are some very high estimates by the order of 10 feet or so by 2100,” Fricker said.

For San Onofre, that means a wet outlook.

“San Onofre is along a part of the coastline that is very exposed and it is very hard to protect it,” Fricker said. “I’m assuming that a big King Tide event with a big storm surge that would inundate the site would be a problem and the probability of that happening is going to be very high.”

Aguirre believes sea level rise alone was enough reason for the coastal commission to refuse to give Edison a permit to store nuclear waste at San Onofre.

He has sued to get the permit revoked and settlement talks are underway to move the toxic material elsewhere.

“How can someone who cares about San Diego, who cares about the coastline agree to put three million pounds of nuclear waste on the shoreline where they know it’s going to be inundated, have no system in place for moving it, have no place to move it to,” he asked.


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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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