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As Residents Debate Safety Of Spent Nuclear Fuel, Power Company Awaits Decision On Storage

Storage bunkers containing spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, February 2018.
Southern California Edison
Storage bunkers containing spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, February 2018.
As Residents Debate Safety Of Spent Nuclear Fuel, Power Company Awaits Decision On Storage
GUEST: Alison St John , North County reporter, KPBS News Subscribe to the Midday Edition podcast on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers whether the operator of the San Onofre nuclear power plant can resume storing spent nuclear fuel on site, the public is struggling to understand what the worst case scenario would be if something went wrong.

The NRC will hold an online conference Thursday to discuss preliminary findings of its special inspection into a near miss accident at San Onofre last August. A canister loaded with 50 tons of radioactive spent fuel narrowly avoided being dropped 18 feet. Donna Gilmore, who runs a website called, said leaving nuclear waste stored on site is a recipe for disaster.

"San Onofre's only five miles as the crow flies from my house" she said from her home in San Clemente. "And one of those Chernobyl cans exploding, which I know is not if but when, we'll be looking at permanent evacuation in every direction, depending on which way the wind's blowing."


Ted Quinn, who lives 10 miles from the plant, feels differently.

"I wouldn't mind living right next to the plant," he said, standing on his patio in Dana Point. "I'd feel just as comfortable there as I would here."

Quinn is a nuclear engineer who has worked in the field for more than 40 years, including two years with the NRC.

"This is my home," he said. "We've been here for 43 years. You know, I don't have concern for the short term. The NRC spokesperson said just a week ago there is no credible event that can have an impact on the local community from the storage of spent fuel at San Onofre, because the fuel has been shut down so long."

San Onfore is 20 miles from Oceanside and 50 miles north of downtown San Diego. When the plant was operating, there was a 10-mile emergency planning zone and a 50-mile "ingestion zone" for affected agriculture.


NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said given how much the spent fuel has cooled since the plant closed, "no credible accident mechanism exists for radioactive material to leave the site."

VIDEO: As Residents Debate Safety Of Spent Nuclear Fuel, Power Company Awaits Decision On Storage

Gilmore is not convinced.

"That is a lie, that is a bald-faced lie," she said. "Ask them for the technical evidence of that statement. They don't have it."

Gilmore, a retired government systems analyst, said she has spent years reading NRC documents and she no longer trusts the agency.

"One of their assumptions is, ‘Nothing could ever go wrong in loading canisters,' OK?" Gilmore said. "So they almost dropped a canister 18 feet, right? They know that the salt air can cause those canisters to crack. And they know — I have the NRC's own evidence — I know that once a crack starts, it will go through the wall."

Quinn said chloride stress corrosion cracking is a well-known phenomenon.

"The material selected for the San Onofre casks is different and better than in most of the other plants in the United States," he said, "and more resistant to chloride stress corrosion cracking, and for the near term it's clear to me that it's OK. I don't have a concern for the immediate near future and I'm a safety engineer, that's my job. But I'd like to study more the long-term implications."

Holly Crawford, director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, said even though the NRC no longer requires Southern California Edison, the utility that operates the San Onofre plant, to fund emergency preparations beyond the site, the agency continues to train every couple of years for a full-scale disaster with three mobile mass decontamination units.

"We still have the capability that we had when the plant was operating," Crawford said. "And I think it is important that we maintain those capabilities: independent radiological monitoring teams that can go out and test not only air, but environment."

She said the agency has a memorandum of understanding with the utility to fund ongoing safety drills, and training for teams to do radiation monitoring. This MOU comes to an end later this fiscal year, Crawford said, but she would like to extend it.

"It's my position that it's important to maintain that, if nothing else to maintain public trust, that there is an independent capability to verify whatever it is the utility is saying the risk is," she said.

But having teams that can check levels of radioactivity around the plant does not reassure Gilmore.

"So their plan is to wait until it's too late? 'Til the canister breaches?" she asked. "Because that's when the radiation levels would be high."

Gilmore said Edison should have contingency plans for what to do in a worst-case scenario.

"We have been asking for their contingency plan ever since the plant shut down and we have yet to get an answer," she said.

Quinn said there are safety margins built into everything.

"Nuclear has more safety margins than almost anything I know," he said. "There's no potential for criticality. Is there potential for explosion? There's no scientific basis for an explosion."

In a recent interview with the public radio program 1A, Greg Jaczko, a former chairman of the Nuclear Energy Commission, said he advocates for phasing out nuclear power.

"Most of the plants do operate safely," he said. "They always operate on this precipice — on the one side is safe operation, on the other side is catastrophic accident — and it's just hard to predict when your foot's going to slip from one side to the other, and that's the challenge with nuclear power."

Jaczko previously told KPBS that Edison should stop loading the radioactive fuel into concrete bunkers by the beach because he believes once the nuclear waste is moved into dry storage, it may never be moved out. This is where Quinn also has concerns.

"Even though it's safe to be here, we would like to finish the job, meaning we would like the fuel to move to another facility,” he said. “So even though they're licensed for 20 years, they're designed for 100 years. Honestly, we never anticipated that they would stay there long term."

The NRC and Edison may soon decide whether contractors can resume loading the fuel into storage bunkers next to the ocean. Since the federal government has not found a long-term storage site, it is not clear whether there is an alternative.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.