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Task Force Recommends Creation Of Agency Focusing On Disposal Of San Onofre Nuclear Waste

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Wednesday's report from the SONGS Task Force featured a wide range of policy recommendations to ensure the safe removal of nuclear fuel from the site and development of a permanent repository location to dispose of the waste.

Speaker 1: 00:00 While our attention is focused on the pandemic and protests over racial injustice spent nuclear fuel continues to be buried in bunkers near the beach at the no shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant 50 miles North of downtown San Diego work has also continued at the Santa. No free taskforce set up by San Diego, Congressman Mike Levin. And this week, the group issued a report. They've been looking more deeply into the dangers of storing the nuclear waste onsite and steps to take, to prevent potential catastrophe. Joining me now is retired. We're Admiral Len herring who's co-chair of that task force. Thanks for being with us,

Speaker 2: 00:35 Glad to be here, LLC.

Speaker 1: 00:37 So now the task force has spent the last 18 months coming up with findings and 30 recommendations, which includes several new suggestions. And one of them is to get the state of California more involved in environmental reviews. Now, till now the state's taken a back seat, you know, saying this is a federal responsibility. Why does the taskforce think it's important to make that change?

Speaker 2: 01:00 Well, I think that what we're really seeing here is that the regulation, the federally written regulation almost prohibits the state from being involved in the process. The NRC has almost total regulatory control, um, of this entire effort. Um, and States have no right, other than, um, small rights to interject, um, or be involved in the process. So as long as the regulatory commission is doing, what's responsible, the state has no say other than to approve. Um, what's there and the NRC has the ability to override. So what we're, what we're suggesting is that because States have different conditions and opportunities that the States and those elected officials placed in positions of authority should have a right to make absolutely certain that the federal government and its regulatory body is in fact, following all the rules in the conditions of safety for its citizens are being complied with.

Speaker 1: 02:03 Now. One of the recommendations that you've made is that the California attorney general should intervene in any potential sale of utility owned nuclear assets to non-utility private entities. Why, why is that important?

Speaker 2: 02:17 Well, I think what's really important is that as long as the energy company owns the facility, um, it is regulated. Um, as soon as they are the individuals who own the facility are no longer in the energy business. Um, they're no longer under the controls. And at the same time, um, the monies that were set aside for the big commissioning, um, within the reserve were never set up with an opportunity for profit. Um, but yet when the sale to a profit entity occurs, profit is built into, um, this effort and if something goes wrong, um, you know, the entity that then owns it in this case, it's, Holtec, um, simply goes bankrupt and, and we're left holding the bag. Our nuclear waste should not be owned by a private entity.

Speaker 1: 03:08 Another of your recommendations is to establish a new nuclear waste administration, something that Congressman Levin will pursue. Why is that needed and how would it help?

Speaker 2: 03:18 Well, I think what's really important to understand is that we're at a crossroads in which, um, the entities associated with the regulation of nuclear energy, um, have now gotten to a point in which, um, there needs to be interagency, um, collaboration and assistance in solving the problems that we now deal that wouldn't yet we are now having to deal with. And waste is not a small issue. As a matter of fact, um, it is a huge issue because, um, you know, this material remains radioactive and extremely hazardous to man for another hundred thousand plus years. These materials across the country are hazardous beat on any approach of anything that's in a Superfund site and they will be that way for a hundred thousand yards. So there's nobody watching over, um, that particular process with the idea that potentially this could be in the ground. These sites could be in the ground until we figure out where to put it for another a hundred years. Um, so department of transportation's not involved and, and you know, there's through this study, we found out that there are so many different aspects of what it's going to take now to move this material from, uh, from its current site all over the country to some regulated place. And if we started moving today, you know, 15 years from now, we're still moving. EV if we moved to container every day, 15 years from now, we're still moving.

Speaker 1: 04:58 Wow. So Southern California Edison, which is the company that owns the plant, their response to the report is in general positive. It is in their interests to have an alternative site for their nuclear waste. So they are believer encouraging Congressman Levin's initiatives. The company says it has met all the requirements imposed on it by the federal nuclear regulatory commission. What, why is that not enough in the taskforce's view,

Speaker 2: 05:24 In some cases, you know, we're blaming the energy company, um, we're in fact, the energy companies, and I must admit, you know, our meetings with, uh, with the energy companies, um, were in fact sincere, they're complying with the regulation. Um, I think the failure, the fail point here is that the regulation is no longer written to provide adequate safety and security of the materials, knowing that there is no repository insight, therefore, the conditions that provided short term storage need to be readdressed and the NRC is just simply not willing to go there. So the energy company says I'm doing everything I'm told to do. I'm not going to do anything more than I have to do. And why should they? And when you're talking, billions, they're not going to go there.

Speaker 1: 06:15 The regulations were written when it was supposed, the federal government would come up with another site. And since they haven't those regulations don't. Yeah.

Speaker 2: 06:22 And the expectation was that it would be a short term because, you know, in, in the eighties we started Yucca mountain and everybody thought, well, okay. So, you know, we'll build a, we'll build capacity around our short term storage until Yucca mountain is finished. And then we'll start transporting those materials. Well, that closed in 1989, and we're still struggling. And we have no identified site. Um, the conditions and regulations for storage, including the Holtec thin line canister has been the solution. And you know, that canister has a 17 year, no inspection or life cycle. Um, and the study is saying, you know what, um, we need to readdress that. We need to look at it and say, no, what we need is a hundred year, um, canister, we need a canister. That's able to withstand the chemicals and the caustic environment, possibility of cracks and those types of things for a hundred years. Um, and maybe that's a better way to approach this because at least it gives us the safety and security, um, for a much longer time until we figure out what to do with this and, and potentially, um, Alison, you know, technology may afford us the opportunity to reuse this waste, but we have to, we have to store it safely until that technology or innovation comes to be,

Speaker 1: 07:43 I've been speaking with retired rear Admiral and hearing who co-chairs the Senator free taskforce convened by Congressman Mike Levin, Admiral Harris. Thanks so much. You were very well.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.