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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Is It Safe To Store Nuclear Waste At San Onofre? The Science Behind It

 June 19, 2019 at 10:31 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 This is KPBS mid day edition. I'm jade Hindman mls in Saint John and for Maureen Cavanagh, southern California Edison will soon was zoomed storing the spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre nuclear generating station. This comes a year after a near miss accidents when one of the canisters almost fell 18 feet. KPBS science and technology reporters Shalina Chet Lani looks into whether storing 1700 tons of nuclear waste on a beach is safe Speaker 2: 00:28 at the Santa No free community engagement panel and Oceanside residents are concerned. They say the spent nuclear fuel at Santa, no Frey isn't safe on the beat. Speaker 3: 00:38 Shelby's talk about halfway the nuclear waste, et Cetera, some of those quickly. But solving the 24,000 years Speaker 2: 00:44 local resident Peter McBride worries, the canisters are too thin and they'll corrode. Others say rising ocean levels could smother the canisters and water. Speaker 3: 00:55 Other areas of the country faced the same kind of irresponsibility with such a sense of potential, potentially disastrous material. And now I'm worried about our children, my grandson. Okay. Speaker 2: 01:06 But at the sooner I know friend nuclear generating station, which jets right up to the beach chief nuclear engineer, Randall Grannis isn't worried. He says any danger would come right after the rods are removed from the reactor because they are extremely hot. That's why they are put in wet cooling. Yeah. Speaker 4: 01:24 After five years we can basically, then we can transfer it into this dry storage system. Speaker 2: 01:30 Sure. It's cooled spent. Nuclear fuel is still highly radioactive and part of that radiation can go through materials like aluminum and human beings, but it can be stopped by concrete and steel. Still, it can take years for this radiation to become less of a problem. Speaker 4: 01:47 If you had no shield in between our fuel and yourself, it could be fatal. Right now if you fast forward several hundred years from now, you can walk up to one of those fuel assemblies and for a short period of time and you'll be fine, but we can't fast forward Speaker 2: 02:04 and that's what's got residents worried. What would happen if this shielding suddenly went away at Santa? No phrase, a large spent fuel site, a thick concrete slab acts as a 35,000 pound lid and it sits on top of a 20 foot crevice where the fuel canisters live official, say the system can withstand massive amounts of stress. But back in January we interviewed physicist Tom English at the Santa No Free State beach. He's very skeptical the system could hold up in an ocean environment. Speaker 5: 02:37 So they're going to store it a few inches above the ground water table. As the sea level rises, what will happen is the bottom of the containers will correct Speaker 2: 02:45 Jim Conka, a nuclear waste storage consultant for, so cal Edison says there's little risk of a breach. He was on the Santa No free tour. Speaker 5: 02:53 Well these are totally fireproofing and fight is that can do anything to this, um, flooding. Is it going to do anything and you think to this, terrorism is the least issue because there's these, each of these weighs 150 tons. It's not like getting a pack back up, pickup truck cut through the fence and throw this in the back of the truck and drive away. One other concern has been earthquakes. Yeah. The, these are ready for earthquakes. There's some concern about sea level rise. That's good. Take a long time for that sea level to rise anywhere near this. Speaker 2: 03:21 I also asked about corrosion while we were at the plant. Much of the exposed metal have rust which can cause it to break apart caucuses. The fuel canisters are made of a special steel that resists Russ, but to check Edison's claims, I talked to Ted Quinn, he's the former president of the nonprofit American nuclear society. Speaker 6: 03:40 The NRC has stated that there is no credible action at did it cover with our dry casks with the age of the fuel, which is older now. Speaker 2: 03:48 But he says there's still a caveat. Santa no freight wasn't built to store spent nuclear fuel in the longterm. The role, yes. Speaker 6: 03:56 Shannon or for you is done. Yeah. It's being taken down and the only thing that'll be left will be the canisters. Yeah. And there's no reason for them to be there if the federal government fulfills their role Speaker 2: 04:08 back at Santa. No fray. Conka agreed saying there needs to be permanent storage underground. Speaker 5: 04:13 And that's because, you know, I love the pyramids. They are great. But that's the only thing humans have made that lasted, you know, anything approaching geologic time, 10,000 years, Speaker 2: 04:23 the federal government was supposed to provide a solution decades ago, but it still has it. So these nuclear experts say what's preventing a permanent, safer solution for Santa? No Frey and plants around the country is less scientific and more political. Joining me now is KPBS is new sitech reporter Shalina Chet Lonnie, thanks for joining us. Shelina thanks. Glad to be here. Okay, so now you mentioned in your piece about the pyramids, which are about 5,000 years old. How long would a building have to last in order to protect nuclear waste from uh, being radioactive and harmful in the community? Yeah, so it would take tens of thousands of years for spent nuclear fuel to be less radioactive. So they should be put in long term storage and, and not be exposed to human beings, but they'd have to last longer than the pyramids, essentially, right? Yes. They would have to last longer than the pyramids. Speaker 2: 05:23 But you know, there is a caveat to this, which is that nuclear fuel becomes less and less radioactive over time. The 10,000 years is or longer than that as a timestamp, um, for making sure that it stays safe, but over time it becomes safer and safer. I guess it's a question of how much time, right? How much time? No, you got a tour of the site, which is up there, uh, just north of San Diego off the I five freeway. What did you see? You describe what you saw in terms of the, the uh, nuclear waste storage. Sure. So, um, it's quite an interesting site. It's called the SPOC pad and it's this thick concrete pad where you'll see a bunch of cubes basically that are popping up from the top. And those are the 35,000 pound steel and concrete lids that are on top of these steel canisters where the spent fuel is being stored. Speaker 2: 06:17 And that's right next to the beach. You can watch the surfers from the site. Yeah. So now in your story, it isn't chief nuclear engineer. Randall Granice says that you could walk right up to one of those canisters without too much in effect and several hundred years. How long are these stainless steel canister is actually designed to last? Do we know? So the ones that are here are designed to last 30 to 40 years according to permits. But in the interview that I had with the socal Edison consultant, the nuclear waste expert, Jim Conka, he said they could last hundreds or 200 years. The real issue is making sure that we can inspect those canisters to make sure that they're still okay. Have they developed a system to reliably inspect those canisters. So about last year there was a near miss accident with one of the canisters where it nearly fell 18 feet. Speaker 2: 07:14 Um, and that prompted some evaluations from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, um, including the way canisters or are being lowered into storage. And as well as looking at scratches on the canisters. And because of that, socal Edison went through a process of actually taking out some of the canisters, putting them in and taking them out before there's any fuel in it and looking at the scratches to see if they were too deep. Um, if it could cause a breach and they, nuclear regulatory commission said it was fine. That was actually something that was released a few weeks ago where they said they feel fine about the scratches. So I believe they have not taken any of those canisters out of the storage, concrete storage bunkers once they were full. No, no, they'd be left in there. Have they developed a way to inspect the cannabis when they're in there so that over time in the future they can see if they're still maintain their integrity? Speaker 2: 08:08 That I'm not entirely sure about. I think that's a point of contention that's often brought up at the community engagement panel on Tenino Fray. The concern that once you put them in there, um, what exactly is so cal Edison and going to be able to do to take them out. Because you know, once you put them in, there's a 35,000 pound lid on them. It's a whole operation. So that I'm not entirely clear on. And one of your sources mentioned is that the sea level rise is not going to get there anytime soon, but a fairly conservative estimates suggest sea level could rise by several feet by the end of the century. I believe. Is it true that these canisters are in bunkers that are only inches above the water level? They are above the groundwater table. That's true. Um, but there are also encapsulated in concrete above the ground water table and also blocked by a seawall. So it would probably have to take more than a several feet of water to completely flood these canisters. Speaker 1: 09:09 How could water be a problem with storing nuclear waste? Speaker 2: 09:13 Well, some scientists, uh, like physicist Tom English say that the concern is that groundwater, because their salts, particularly if it's close to the beach, could potentially corrode the bottom of the canisters. And the answer to that or the, the retort to that is that the canisters are encapsulated in so much concrete that that would take a lot of corrosion for that to happen. Speaker 1: 09:41 And Ted Quinn of the American nuclear society who argues that there's really no credible evidence that there could be something harmful, it would harm the community outside the confines of that site. Even he is worried about the idea that they might be left there long term. Speaker 2: 09:55 Yes. I think that's a, um, consensus among the scientific community and the scientific experts that I've talked to you is that they feel fairly confident about the storage capabilities that have been developed but spent nuclear fuel, but recognize that none of it can stay on sites that weren't built to store the fuel. Sandino fray wasn't built to store nuclear fuel, um, spent nuclear fuel. It was made to produce energy. And the main concern that's coming from Ted Quinn is that, you know, a hundred years down the line, where will there be the personnel with the expertise to inspect these canisters? So that's the major argument for why it's not a good idea to keep it on the beach. Speaker 1: 10:40 Edison actually begun moving the remaining spent fuel rods that are still in the cooling ponds into the concrete bunkers now that the NRC has given them permission to go ahead. Speaker 2: 10:50 Not yet. So, uh, so cal Edison is taking its time. I'm going through some more training and you know, getting their ducks in a row basically before they start moving the fuel again. It's been nearly a year since the NRC put the ban on there being able to move the fuels. So, uh, it seems like they're really trying to make sure everything is in place and that employees know what types of procedures they need to be following so that there aren't any other potential mistakes that happen. Yeah. Speaker 1: 11:20 And you've been on the site, so what would be visible once they decommissioned the side and the domes are gone? What will people be able to see about this law, this, uh, a nuclear waste storage site from the freeway, Speaker 2: 11:32 from the freeway? Um, what's most prominent is, is honestly the domes. Um, you may, you may not be able to see the spent nuclear fuel pad unless you kind of go around to the, uh, to the state beach and look over and see the SPC pad. Speaker 1: 11:50 So they will be effectively invisible to most people. Wednesday varied. Speaker 2: 11:55 Yeah. You'd really have to be looking Speaker 1: 11:57 Shelina thank you so much for telling us about your visit. Thank you. That's a KBS is new. Sitech Ibotta. Shelina Chet Lani.

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There is about 1,700 tons of spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Residents are concerned this short-term storage solution may become permanent.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments