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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 plant, June 7, 2013.
Associated Press
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
As San Onofre's Radioactive Waste Goes Underground, Opponents Search For Alternatives GUEST:Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News

>> This is the KPBS Mid-Day edition. I'm Michael Lipkin. As the power plant is decommissioned in San Onofre you -- San Onofre, the twin domes will disappear. The most dangerous legacy of the plan, thousands of highly radioactive fuel rods will remain there just out of sight. There is no guarantee that they will ever be removed. KPBS reporter Allison St. John has more on the options that so far have gone nowhere. >> Thousands of fuel rods plaque -- packed with uranium pellets and generated electricity for Southern California, for 45 years. The fuel will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. It is now being moved from cooling ponds into concrete bunkers on site just feet from the beach. Edison decided this is his only option since the federal government has failed to find a long-term storage site for nuclear waste anywhere else in the country. Admiral Harry who had a Navy region Southwest before his retirement is one of many voices calling for the decision to be reconsidered. >> I believe that cost was a driving factor. Expediency was a driving factor. And the associated risks that are now being identified, I think are much more brave than what was put in the assessment. >> Hearing says the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may have given the go-ahead but another federal agency, the Department of Defense, should consider the national security risks. He is looking ahead and says before the ocean comes over the seawall, sea level rise could compromise the bottom of the canisters holding the waste. >> As sea level rises, the containers are subjected to elements that they simply are not designed to handle. >> Every once in a be to consider moving the waste to another spot at Camp Pendleton on the other side of the freeway, where it could be on higher ground. So far, the Marine Corps has rejected the idea. The next closest alternative being proposed is to store the waste and another nuclear power plant about 350 miles east in Arizona. But there is part ownership at Palo Verde. One attorney who has sued Erickson -- Edison believes this is the best bet. >> Nobody wants to have nuclear waste in the community but we do have a shot -- they are already storing nuclear waste for California there. >> Edison has asked and been turned down but they believe they should try again. The third option comes from the private sector which is eager to tap into tens of 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 Richter is the chair of the Edison community engagement panel. A group that we -- that meets quarterly to review what is going on. >> . >> I would say there is a gap opening with what the private sector has been able to and what the government needs to do in terms of changing federal law. >> They say two companies are now applying for licenses to build interim storage sites. One in West Texas and one in Eastern New Mexico. John Heaton as chair of the daily energy alliance in New Mexico. >> We think that the reality is, if Congress sees that a facility is, in fact, licensed and ready to operate, it may change their minds. >> One congressman says finding an alternative site for the waste is one of the top priorities. >> It is so easy for people to say no to a solution but not have an alternative. In this case, people can feel that a particular site not good. But if it is incrementally better than where the waste is today, then it has to be considered. >> But Congress is distracted by elections and there is little hope new legislation on nuclear waste will be passed in the house this year. Meanwhile, a new realtor commission has changed the rules for how long nuclear waste can be stored on site without changing the requirements for how to store it. The citizens oversight has positioned Embassy to have thicker double-walled canisters. >> The quick quest -- the key question is, we have canisters that have a design life of 40 years. The waste confidence report is that these will remain on-site indefinitely and that is okay. Indefinitely is not 40 years. >> They said the community must act soon because Edison's plan threatens future generations. >> The people that have made the decision will be around to deal with it. But unfortunately, there are folks like myself who are not focusing on myself anymore. I am focusing on my grandchildren here. And are we making decisions that are right for them? >> Allison St. John, KPBS news. >> Joining me with more on that story is the KPBS North County reporter, Allison St. John. Hello. >> Glad to be here. >> Are there any analogs as to what is happening here or are we the first to seriously tackle this issue? >> Not at all. We are joining a national crisis. There are millions -- billions of tons stacked up on waste depositories on site on plans both operating and decommissioned across the country. Five in California and the west coast. Many more on the East Coast. >> There are nuclear power plants around the world. Are other countries facing the same problemsthat we in America are facing in terms of what to do with this waste when the plants are closed? >> Yes. It is an international issue. Many people here in San Diego have been observing what countries in Europe have been doing. Saying that they are taking a different approach. Taking the whole thing much more seriously. And using storage systems that are a good deal more robust than the ones being licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission here. >> Of the several options you outlined in your story, one is potentially moving this waste to Camp Pendleton. But you reported that the Marines have rejected that idea. What is the rationale for that? >> The Marines are basically taking the position -- look, you promised to give us back the land as it was in pristine condition and we are holding you to that. There is a possibility that they could have accepted moving the waist up to the Mesa on the other side of the freeway which at least would not be so close to the ocean and vulnerable to sea level rise. But they are claiming that that is needed for training. And they cannot possibly let go of that and they are trying to limit, I think, the remains of this plant, to that little sliver of land between Interstate five and the ocean. >> And Palo Verde -- the out-of-state plan also says, it does not want our waste. Have you given any indication about what specifically the stumbling block is? They are storing waste already. >> That is correct. Micah Gary, the attorney pushing for that option, says that really, Southern California Edison -- the chief nuclear officer -- basically just threw out the question at a board meeting and they sort of considered it and took a vote and said, no. So he thinks it needs a lot more consideration and possibly more incentives to encourage that plant to take some of the waste. >> Pay more money to take this on. >> Exactly. Wherever he goes, is the question. The question is, where will that go to? Taxpayers have been paying. The way it is working out right now, a lot of tax money is going to paying off utilities around the country because the federal government has not fulfilled its obligation to find a site. And so some utilities are suing and getting money from the treasury to help pay for this. >> What are the types of federal laws that could be passed to help get over some of these hurdles that are stymieing this for years? >> Currently, there is a fun. Billions of dollars that have been set aside for nuclear waste disposal. But it is tied specifically to long-term storage, which is at the moment, Yucca Mountain, which has been stalled for years. >> That is a Nevada plan. >> That is right. What would need to happen is for Congress to say, okay, we will agree to shorter-term storage, even if we have not yet approved Yucca Mountain. Because Yucca Mountain is a sticking point. It seems like there is no movement on getting that approved. So the attempt is to try to get new legislation that would say, okay, let's spend some of that money on interim storage in the meantime. And at the moment, they are deadlocked on that issue. >> Turning back to what is happening on the ground now, you reported last week that there is a design flaw, or there was a design flaw. What exactly was the problem? >> It is interesting. There are some aluminum shims which are inserted into the canisters to hold the nuclear fuel rods upright. To stop them from rattling around. The bottom of the canisters have to have space to allow helium to flow around, to cool the fuel. The pens at the bottom of the spacers change the design. They did get approval from the NRC by going through the expedited process, which reminds me a little bit of the process that led to the design flaws in the steam generators in the first place. But they got the design approved and now they find that that design change has flaws because the pens at the bottom of the canisters are breaking off. Some of them. They found a broken pen and a bench pen. There are plans and other parts of the country finding similar problems. >> So salt -- SoCal stopped using that and went back to the original. They also said they are not going to try to transfer the fuel that was already in these broken castes into fully functional once? >> Right. Nobody has ever done that, they were told. Taking fuel out of the canisters and transferring. They would need to put them back into the fuel pools underneath the water -- and on weld the lid. They say it would take 2-3 years to get licensing permission to do that. >> They seem to not want to take that risk. >> A lot of people do say it is better to you -- better to move the waste out of the fuel pools and out of the storage. Because if there where an earthquake Orison aisle make, it is more vulnerable. But I think the whole process -- what it is revealing is just how experimental the whole process is. It is like scientists are figuring out how to deal with that as the problems come up, rather than having a foolproof method -- method before they start. Many people say they should have known how to dispose of this before they started generating power using nuclear energy. >> I have been speaking with Allison St. John. Thank you. >> My pleasure.

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

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

Holtec International's dry cask storage facility at San Onofre , March 2018.
https://sanonofresafety.org/
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

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

Video: As San Onofre's Radioactive Waste Goes Underground, Opponents Search For Alternatives
Map showing locations suggested as alternative storage site for nuclear waste.
Zack White,KPBS
Map showing locations suggested as alternative storage site for nuclear waste.