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Nuclear storage talks could mean changes for San Onofre

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm says the process of moving spent nuclear fuel currently stored at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is moving forward.

Granholm visited the decommissioned nuclear power plant on Camp Pendleton on Friday to announce that the Department of Energy (DOE) is opening the dialogue to find a temporary home for spent nuclear fuel.

Highly radioactive rods are currently stored at nuclear power facilities in 35 states because the United States never selected a permanent storage repository.


A plan to put high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada was killed by the Obama administration. That plan was long opposed by Nevada politicians.

The DOE is looking to build a facility where a community would accept the risks of temporary storage willingly. This is known as a consent-based approach.

There are 3.55 million pounds of highly radioactive waste stored at San Onofre in 123 canisters of depleted fuel rods.

The DOE has picked 13 partners and doled out $26 million to explore the possibility of finding a community willing to host an interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel.

“It is going to be in the span of years, rather than months,” Granholm said. “But the bottom line is that the process has begun and some of it will depend on how forward-leaning the communities are and how willing they’re ready to go. It’s hard to say at this moment because we have to begin those conversations.”


The groups are located all over the country.

Democratic Rep. Mike Levin has worked with the DOE and Congress to establish a priority system to guide the movement of stored waste.

Canisters that contain spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on Jun. 9, 2023
Erik Anderson
Canisters that contain spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on Jun. 9, 2023

Older sites with environmental or national security issues would be among the first to have their waste moved once an interim site is found.

Levin also wants Congress to renew a bid to find a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste.

“There’s no question that communities that are interested in this, being an interim site, will not want to become a de facto permanent site,” Levin said. “And, therefore, there needs to be movement on licensing another site.”

Levin has frequently said moving the waste away from the shore is one of his top priorities.

Critics have long questioned the wisdom of storing the spent fuel beside the ocean in an area that could experience an earthquake or tsunami.

Activists want the radioactive material moved to another site, but they acknowledge that moving the material is fraught with challenges.

There are concerns that the canisters are scratched and gouged from when they were moved into their current concrete storage area.

“We know the cans are damaged and, in order to move them, that issue is going to have to be effectively addressed,” said Nina Babiarz from the group Public Watchdogs.

The canisters are also heavy. That complicates efforts to move them via roads, rails or ships.

The following groups are the project teams that landed $2 million dollar grants:

  • American Nuclear Society (Illinois) as the lead, with South Carolina Universities Research and Education Foundation, Northern Arizona University, University of New Mexico and South Carolina State University as partners.
  • Arizona State University
  • Boise State University (Idaho) as the lead, with the National Tribal Energy Association, Arizona State, Colorado State, Idaho State, Montana State, University of Idaho, University of Wyoming and University of Michigan as partners.
  • Clemson University (South Carolina) as the lead, with the South Carolina Universities Research and Education Foundation as a partner.
  • The Energy Communities Alliance (Washington, D.C.) as the lead, with the Environmental Council of the States (D.C.), DOE’s State and Tribal Government Working Group, National Association of Attorneys General (D.C.), National Conference of State Legislatures (D.C.) and National Governors Association (D.C.) as partners 
  • Good Energy Collective (California) as the lead, with the University of Notre Dame (Indiana) as partner.
  • Holtec International (New Jersey) as the lead, with University of Florida, McMahon Communications (Massachusetts), Agenda Global (D.C.), American Nuclear Society and Nuclear Energy Institute (D.C.) as partners.
  • Keystone Policy Center (Colorado) as the lead, with the Social and Environmental Research Institute, GDFWatch (U.K.) and the National Association of Regional Councils (D.C.) as partners.
  • Missouri University of Science & Technology as the lead, with the University of Missouri-Columbia, University of Illinois, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Nevada, Taylor Geospatial Institute (Missouri) and St. Louis University as partners.
  • North Carolina State University as the lead, with the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash Tribe of San Luis Obispo County and Region (California), Mothers for Nuclear (California), and the Tribal Consent Based Coalition and Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (California) as partners.
  • The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (New York) as the lead, with the Schenectady Foundation (New York) and Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Indians (Wisconsin) as partners.
  • The Southwest Research Institute (Texas) as the lead, with Deep Isolation (California), Westra Consulting (Nebraska), Community Transition Planning (Michigan) and Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Nation (Minnesota) as partners.
  • Vanderbilt University (Tennessee) as the lead, with Rutgers University and Oregon State University as partners.