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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...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Surfers walk along a beach nearby the San Onofre nuclear power plant, July 19, 2012.

GUEST: Len Hering, former head of the Navy in San Diego

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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.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: 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.

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.


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