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Safety Concerns Mount As Edison Awaits NRC's OK To Bury Radioactive Waste

Surfers walk along a beach nearby the San Onofre nuclear power plant, July 19, 2012.
Associated Press
Surfers walk along a beach nearby the San Onofre nuclear power plant, July 19, 2012.
Safety Concerns Mount As Edison Awaits NRC's OK To Bury Radioactive Waste
GUEST: Len Hering, former head of the Navy in San Diego Subscribe to the Midday Edition podcast on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

Southern California Edison wants to resume burying nuclear waste Senan afraid this month. But as more details emerge about the near miss accident at the plant last summer. Opposition is mounting and it's not just from anti-nuclear activists. The distinctive domes of the Senate over a nuclear power plant that's 50 miles north of downtown San Diego will eventually disappear as the plant has decommissioned but the radioactive spent fuel being moved from cooling ponds to concrete bunkers by the beach may be there indefinitely because Congress has not found a long term solution to storing high level nuclear waste. The former head of the Navy in San Diego retired admiral Len Herring is one of the voices sounding the alarm about the way. Southern California Edison is going about storing spent nuclear fuel at San ofri. I'm an advocate for nuclear energy. I'm not a believer that it needs to disappear. But the proper handling of the material is what we are talking about here. The decommissioning of the songs plant involves the handling and the storage of nuclear waste in a fashion that is for all practical purposes not being done safely for us. In a lab at UCSD mass spectrometers humming in the background. Physicist Subrata Chakraborti feels the same way about the iconic Santa interface site. I have a kind of soft corner to a new pair because it's a one of the biggest energy source. And when I came here like 16 years ago I saw this nice dome and then I was fascinated about it. But after Southern California Edison had a near miss accident last August for moving the nuclear waste Chakraborti agreed to work with physicist Tom English to analyze potential problems with the way the operation is being conducted with a model he demonstrates the challenge of lowering a 17 foot tall canister loaded with 54 tons of spent nuclear fuel into the round hole of a concrete storage pump. Now declares between this canister and this hole is like a quarter inch. That's why a canister got stuck on an inner guiding and narrowly avoided falling 18 feet to the bone from the home. But Chakravorti and English point out that a nuclear regulatory commission report on the near miss accident says virtually all of the 29 canisters already loaded probably got scratched repeatedly on the way down. Every time you move a giant wave of 54 tons bangs into it it makes a god. Yeah we are in the 21st century and the technique they are using the Egyptian 2000 years ago they use the same technique Chakravorti says Hulta International the company that designed the storage system has included no sensors to detect potential damage. English and Chakraborti say scratches on the canisters make them vulnerable to chemical reactions that could result in corrosion cracking over time because the cylinders are not that is the only five inch thick at a community engagement panel meeting in November. Tom Palmisano of Southern California Edison responded to a question about the problem of leaving scratched canisters in storage. We don't see that as an immediate issue. The tractors you shallow well below and sometimes produce food scratch. So quite frankly we don't have a short term control becomes a long term major management concern. But that's exactly the problem says Chakraborti who notes that there is no guarantee or even likelihood the waste will be removed within the next few decades. The problem is right now the bottom of the cylinder is 18 inches above the mean sea level. And now after 50 years when the sea levels rise it is no longer a dry storage. It can be a waste storage. We have all the technology. And we should do better than this. Truly the more we learn about what's happening and how it's being done the more I am fearful that we as a population are being protected by the procedures that are in place. Herring is calling for a halt to the process of burying the remaining 44 canisters of spent nuclear fuel. We need to stop take a break. Go back to square one. Forced the individuals to do the right study with the right solutions so that it does not put San Diego at risk. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said it will not give Southern California Edison the go ahead to resume burying the waste until after its hold a public conference. Joining us now is retired admiral Len Herring. Thank you so much for coming in. Good morning and Happy New Year. Happy New Year to you too. So you mentioned in the story that you see the problems emanating basically from a desire to save money. Can you expand on that. Well it's clear that when you take a look at what is happening is that the quick choice of action for both as the city NERC was to take the site that was right there. Knowing that there are alternative opportunities even on the site that exists the choice was clearly digging in the sand put it in the ground real quick and be done with it. There's even admission by individuals that the expediency by which the schedule was created was to make absolutely certain that they could get it in the ground as quickly as possible. Now if it were to be moved do you think there's enough money in the in the 4 billion dollar or so decommissioning fund to cover the cost of moving it again. Not my problem. You know the fact that the business decision was made in expediency and not having a true understanding of the safety that should be borne by the individuals who made that decision and whether or not it is or is not the responsibility of the board or the NRC that's yet to be determined. And basically the federal government should be taking responsibility for this and paying for it at some point in the future. At some point in time there's you know the number of waivers that have been authorized the number of decisions that have been made to allow this Expedia this expedited disposal needs to be held accountable and whoever is responsible for making those decisions should be told should be made to pay for the debt. Now when you were the Navy mayor here in San Diego you presumably had some responsibilities to do with nuclear energy. And there doesn't seem to be the same problem from military nuclear waste. Can you help us understand why it is that commercial nuclear waste is having such a hard time finding a place to be stored. Yeah well you know I can't admit to having no hands on experience in the energy sector as we know. But when I was younger I was a nuclear weapons safety officer handling officer and security officer. So I do understand the processes. And more importantly the necessity to make sure that both handling and procedures are all done properly. The more I learn about what's happening on site the more I'm scared that individuals who are not certified or truly understanding the implications associated with the movement of nuclear materials are actually being used come to find out that the ocean inspectors are standard industrial engineer inspectors they have no specific credibility in the nucular handling world. So if you don't even have inspectors who are there to make sure the people who are hired off the street to do the movement that's something that the Navy would never do. We would never go through that process and we you know a nuclear weapon or the material in our reactors is almost minuscule compared to what we're dealing with here in San Onofre. But yet the procedures for what we did were 500 times what I'm seeing or hearing are being applied in the Senate for disposal effort and more importantly I think what we find out is that when the plant was shuttered the true nucular experienced personnel within that plant were let go. The disposal of the material is not being done by the same group of individuals including the individuals who are ultimately responsible for it. They are not nucular certified trained and experienced individuals. Let's just talk about the location because that is really one of the points you're making is that this is the wrong place and you talk about we need to stop burying it and think again and go back to basics. But some people say that it's actually more dangerous to leave the material in the spent fuel pools. That's where it caused problems at Fukushima for example. So how do you respond to people who say no we've got to move it as soon as possible. Well the issue here is that we've made some we've made a series of bad decisions and those bad decisions should not be allowed to complete because once it's in the ground as you know for the former head of the NRC has said it will stay there for wherever. So if we just allow them to continue to do the process now we have to deal with. OK so what do we do with this material and what happens. I think the thing that is the most concerning here is we're dealing with what some people believe to be a potential industrial accident but this is not like any other industrial accident on the face of the earth. I mean you know we've had petroleum plants that have blown up in three days after the fires out. We've got people in it. If we have an incident in San Onofre in this particular facility it'll be 100000 years before we're able to approach the site. So this is not a nucular incident or this is not an industrial incident like any other that we deal with on a regular basis and that should be the biggest concern. It's hard to even conceive really of the of the fallout as it were. If something were to happen I understand that there is an economic analysis that's been done by MQ to company correct. That does policy analysis for public and private sector sponsored by the society Lawrence Foundation. Can you give us an idea of what their initial findings are. Well what we looked what they looked at was what would be the impact if there were to be an accident if there were to be a minor explosion a leak or whatever and we we looked at what was reasonable and we said well 50 miles because that's really what you're talking about when you consider nuclear fallout and potentially that's hopefully that there's not a massive upper atmosphere a transfer of if there were to be a major explosion. But it appears as though the initial impact is somewhere between 13 and 14 trillion dollars because the period of time. And that's only 50 years so we are not we're not talking about I mean again when if or when something should happen we are talking about the immediate cessation of virtually everything in 50 mile range. Do you see the danger as something that is likely or or or possible even in the short term or do you see this more as really a long term issue. I think the problem is we don't know. And that's why I'm calling for a stop. We don't know. There is controversy over the types of containers which also concerns me. They're using thin walled containers in which there is a requirement under the Nuclear Regulatory Safety concessions that the internal and external aspects of that container are to be monitored. These containers do not allow for the monitoring of that material inside the container. So we don't know what's happening how long they would and how long they are lasting. Well Len thanks so much for coming in. I really do appreciate I hope that people take a little more awareness of what's happening. And I would call for individuals to contact their local congressmen. But this is a serious safety issue that people need to be concerned about that is retired Admiral Allen

Southern California Edison wants to resume burying nuclear waste at San Onofre in January. But, as more details emerge about the near-miss accident at the plant last summer, opposition is mounting, and it’s not just from anti-nuclear activists.

The distinctive domes of the San Onofre nuclear power station 50 miles north of downtown San Diego will eventually disappear as the plant is decommissioned. But because Congress has not found a long-term solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, the site is being turned into a nuclear waste storage site, or de facto dump.

The former head of the Navy in San Diego, retired Adm. Len Hering, is one of the voices sounding the alarm about the way Southern California Edison is going about storing spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre.

“I’m an advocate for nuclear energy, I’m not a believer that it needs to disappear,” Hering said, “but the proper handling of the material is what we are talking about here. The decommissioning of the SONGS plant involves the handling and the storage of nuclear waste in a fashion that, for all practical purposes, is not being done safely for us."

"We Can Do Better!"

In his lab at UCSD, physicist Subrata Chakraborty, feels the same way about the San Onofre site.

“I have a kind of soft corner toward nuclear energy, because it’s one of the biggest energy sources," Chakraborty said. “When I came here 16 years ago, I saw this nice dome and I was fascinated about it.”

But after Southern California Edison had a near-miss accident last August while moving the nuclear waste, Chakraborty was asked by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation to work with physicist Tom English to analyze potential problems with the way the operation is being conducted. Chakraborty said he felt strongly about the safety issue, and decided to take on a scientific analysis of the procedures, pro bono.

With a small scale model, he demonstrated the challenge of loading a 17-foot tall canister filled with 54 tons of spent nuclear fuel into the round hole of a concrete storage bunker.

“The clearance between this canister and this hole is, like, a quarter of an inch,” he explained, as the cylinder hovered above the hole.

English demonstrated what happened during the Aug. 3 incident.

“So what happened was, the thing was in here like this, but it got stuck,” said English, describing how a canister got stuck on an inner guide ring.

The loaded canister could have fallen 18 feet into the bottom of the hole, because the slings that supported it were withdrawn before the operators realized it has not successfully loaded. The canister was balanced at the top of the hole for almost an hour before a crisis was narrowly averted.

But English and Chakraborty point out that a Nuclear Regularly Commission report on the near-miss accident says virtually all of the 29 canisters already loaded probably got scratched repeatedly on the way down.

“Let’s suppose they get the canister past the ring a little bit,” English said. "Then they’re going to continue the process of moving it down a little bit — and what’s going to happen is, every time you move it, this giant weight of 54 tons bangs into the ring, and when it bangs, it makes a gouge. So what we’ve done is make some calculations about how deep those gouges are.”

“We are in the 21st century and the technique they are using — the Egyptians, 3,000 years ago — they use the same technique,” Chakraburty said.

Chakraborty said he is shocked that Holtec International, the company that designed the storage system, has included no sensors inside the storage containers to detect potential damage to the canisters.

Research is ongoing into techniques involving robot technology that could be used to inspect for damage to canisters in the future.

"We will perform those inspections in the future, based on the timelines prescribed by our licenses and permits," Edison spokesman John Dobken wrote in an email.

Edison has resisted suggestions to pull the canisters out to check them, though NRC regulations require the canisters be retrievable.

English and Chakraborty said scratches on the canisters open up new surfaces that are vulnerable to chemical reactions and that could result in corrosion cracking over the long term.

"And cracking of the cylinder, because these cylinders are not that thick, this is only five-eighths-of-an-inch thick," Chakraborty said, "so this is potentially a big issue.”

The site of spent nuclear fuel storage at the San Onofre nuclear power plant is shown in this photo, January 2018.
Southern California Edison
The site of spent nuclear fuel storage at the San Onofre nuclear power plant is shown in this photo, January 2018.

A Long-Term Problem

At Edison’s Community Engagement Panel November meeting, Tom Palmisano, chief nuclear officer at San Onofre, responded to a question about the problem of leaving scratched canisters in storage. Panel member Jerry Kern, an Oceanside city councilmember, read a question from the audience:

“According to the NRC, there’s damage to all the canisters, why are you wanting to load if the canisters are damaged already? When and how will you fix damaged canisters?”

Palmisano responded: “We don’t see that as an immediate issue, the scratches are shallow, well below an acceptable criteria for an acceptable scratch, the oxide layer reforms in these storage vaults, so quite frankly we don’t have a short-term concern with that — it becomes a long-term, aging-management concern.”

But that’s exactly the problem, said Chakraborty, who said there is no guarantee or even likelihood the waste will be moved within the next few decades.

“The problem is, right now the bottom of this cylinder is 18 inches above the mean sea level, and after 50 years, when the sea level rises, it is no longer a dry storage, it will be a wet storage,” Chakraborty said.

“We have all the technology, great people," he said. "We should do better than this.”

"Go Back to Square One"

Hering is calling for a halt to the process of burying of the remaining 44 canisters of spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre.

"Truly, the more I learn about what’s happening and how it’s being done, the more I am fearful that we as a population are not being protected by the procedures in place,” Hering said. “The efforts being done, for what I believe now is being done for the sake of money, is in fact putting all San Diegans at risk.”

“We need to stop, take a break, go back to square one, force the individuals to do the right study, with the right solution, that does not put San Diego at risk,” Hering said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it will not give Southern California Edison the go-ahead to resume burying the waste until after holding a public conference. NRC Spokesman Victor Dricks said the commission will issue a news release when a “predecisional enforcement conference” is scheduled.

Meanwhile, San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre has called on the FBI to conduct an investigation into whether there is criminal wrongdoing involved in the way Edison is handling the storage of the waste.

"People are becoming more and more concerned that the regulators have not been regulating, and that Edison has been taking advantage of that," Aguirre said.

Aguirre said he will file suit in January charging that Edison has not lived up to an agreement reached in 2017, in which the company agreed to make every “commercially reasonable effort” to find an alternative place to store the nuclear waste.

Safety Concerns Mount As Edison Awaits NRC's OK To Bury Radioactive Waste
Southern California Edison wants to resume burying nuclear waste at San Onofre in January. But, as more details emerge about the near-miss accident at the plant last summer, opposition is mounting, and it’s not just from anti-nuclear activists.