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As San Onofre’s Radioactive Waste Goes Underground, Opponents Search For Alternatives

Power lines make their way over a freeway toward the San Onofre nuclear power...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Power lines make their way over a freeway toward the San Onofre nuclear power plant, June 7, 2013.

As San Onofre's Radioactive Waste Goes Underground, Opponents Search For Alternatives


Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News


As the San Onofre nuclear power plant is decommissioned over the next 20 years, the twin domes visible from Interstate 5 will disappear. But the most dangerous legacy of the plant — thousands of highly radioactive spent fuel rods — may remain, just out of sight of the freeway.

There is no guarantee the spent fuel rods will be removed, and so far efforts to find alternative sites have gone nowhere.

Thousands of fuel rods, packed with uranium pellets, powered San Onofre and generated electricity for Southern California for 45 years. That fuel will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

Southern California Edison already has 50 casks of spent fuel in storage units on site.

Next to those storage units was an empty space beside the seawall that separates the site from the beach. After the plant shut down in 2013, Edison decided the space was its only option to store another 75 casks, since the federal government has failed to find a long-term storage site. In January, the space started filling up.

Transfering Fuel Rod Assemblies

It takes several days to meticulously transfer fuel rod assemblies in the cooling pools into a stainless steel canister, weld the lid shut, load the canister onto a huge flatbed, and maneuver over to the storage area a few hundred yards away. Workers slowly lower each canister into a concrete bunker. Each cask has 37 fuel assemblies. The casks are designed by Holtec International to hold more than Edison's previous dry cask storage systems hold.

About 100 feet away, on the other side of the seawall, the ocean waves pound the beach and surfers skim the waves.

RELATED: Edison Reveals Design Flaws In New Canisters Storing Nuclear Waste At San Onofre

Photo credit: Southern California Edison

Spent nuclear fuel being moved inside giant canisters from cooling pools to dry cask storage on site at San Onofre, March 2018.

Problems have already emerged. A design flaw in the canister's aluminum "spacers" that hold the rods upright resulted in a halt to the work after only four canisters were loaded. Edison has resumed the loading process using canisters with a previous design.

Retired Adm. Len Hering, who headed Navy Region Southwest, is one of many voices calling for Edison's decision to be reconsidered.

“I believe that cost was a driving factor,” Hering said, “expediency was a driving factor, and the associated risks that are now being identified by the groups of individuals I am currently working with are much more grave than was put in that assessment.”

Hering said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may have given the go-ahead, but the Department of Defense should consider the national security risks. Hering said sea level rise could compromise the bottom of the canisters holding the waste before the ocean comes over the seawall. The stainless steel canisters are stored in concrete bunkers just above the water table.

“As sea level rises, the containers are subjected to elements that they are simply not designed to handle,” Hering said.

Photo credit:

Holtec International's dry cask storage facility at San Onofre , March 2018.

Option One

Hering wants the Navy to consider moving the waste to another spot on Camp Pendleton on the east side of the I-5, where it would be on higher ground. So far, the Marine Corps has rejected the idea of using the mesa, saying it is needed for training purposes.

Option Two

The next closest alternative being proposed is to store the waste at another nuclear power plant about 350 miles east, in Arizona, where Edison has part ownership at Palo Verde.

Attorney Mike Aguirre, who has sued Edison over San Onofre’s decommissioning plan, believes this is the best bet.

“No one wants to have nuclear waste necessarily move into their community,” Aguirre said, “but we do have a shot at Palo Verde because they are already storing nuclear waste for California there.”

Edison has already asked Palo Verde and been turned down, but Aguirre believes the company should try again. He said ratepayers would have to cover the cost, but the cost should not be a deterrent.

Option Three

The third option comes from the private sector, which is eager to tap into billions of dollars the federal government has collected for nuclear waste storage. But that money was for long-term storage at Yucca Mountain, and the government does not want to release it for interim storage.

David Victor is chair of Edison’s Community Engagement Panel, a group that meets quarterly to review what’s going on at San Onofre.

RELATED: Former 'Navy Mayor' Urges Reassessment Of San Onofre's Nuclear Waste Risks

“I would say there’s a gap opening up between what the private sector is willing and able to do in this area and what the government needs to do in terms of changing the law,” Victor said.

Two companies are now applying for licenses to build interim storage sites: one in Andrews County, in west Texas and one in Lea County, in eastern New Mexico. Orano USA and Waste Control Specialists are re-applying for the license in Texas, having restructured the original company that went through bankruptcy.

Holtec International, the same company that is working with Edison to store the spent fuel at San Onofre, is applying to develop the same kind of storage system in New Mexico. The license application is to store up to 500 canisters with 8,680 metric tons of uranium for 40 years.

John Heaton is chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance in New Mexico, which bought the land and supports the project.

“We think that the reality is, if Congress sees that a facility is in fact licensed and ready to operate, it may change their mind,” Heaton said.

RELATED: Edison Names Panel Of San Onofre Nuclear Waste Advisors

Photo credit: Zack White,KPBS

Map showing locations suggested as alternative storage site for nuclear waste.

Political Obstacles

San Onofre is in the 49th congressional district. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, said finding an alternative site for the waste is one of his top priorities.

“It’s so easy for people to say 'no' to a solution and not have an alternative,” Issa said. “And in this case, people can feel that a particular site is not good, but if it’s incrementally better than where it is today, then it has to be considered.”

But Issa is retiring and Congress is distracted this year by midterm elections.

Community Engagement Panel member Jerry Kern said he has contacted several candidates running to replace Issa in the 49th district and briefed them on the importance of the issue.

There’s little hope legislation sponsored by John Shimkus (R-Illinois) on nuclear waste will be passed in the House this year. One sticking point is over whether interim storage can be approved before long-term storage at Yucca Mountain is approved.

The U.S. Senate does not have a bill in the works.

National problem

Nationwide, an estimated 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is being stored at sites in 35 states around the country, waiting for a solution to be found.

As the debate over where to store nuclear waste drags on, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has changed the rules for how long nuclear waste can be stored on site, but without changing the requirements for how the nuclear waste is to be stored.

Ray Lutz of the group Citizens Oversight has petitioned the NRC to require thicker, double-walled canisters.

“The key things is, we have canisters that have a design life of 40 years and yet the waste confidence report, the one they recently put out, says they will remain on site indefinitely,” Lutz said. “Indefinitely is not 40 years.”

Laguna Woods resident Bert Moldow also spoke at a recent Community Engagement Panel meeting and described how Finland is building an underground tomb for its nuclear waste, designed to last for thousands of years. He said the United States is not treating nuclear waste as seriously as do other countries

"We do not know today when that waste will be moved, we have no assurance at all," Moldow said. "Our government has failed us for 70 years. What private industry is proposing to do over in Texas and Nevada is a joke compared to what the country of Finland is doing."

For Hering, the threat at San Onofre is made more serious by impending sea level rise. He said the community must act because while problems may not emerge within the next few years, Edison’s plan threatens future generations.

“The people who made the decision won’t be around to deal with it,” Hering said, “but unfortunately, there are folks like myself. I’m not focusing on myself anymore, I’m focusing on my grandchildren. Are we making decisions that are right for them?”

Photo credit: Zack White,KPBS

Map showing locations suggested as alternative storage site for nuclear waste.


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