REGION — While the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has been closed since June 2013, the discussion over where to store the spent radioactive fuel is ongoing. The nuclear waste will remain stored on site, although strong disagreement now exists as to exactly where on the grounds it should be.
After the fuel that is used to generate electricity inside a nuclear plant is irradiated, it must then be safely stored to prevent its possible escape. And that is one of the major sticking points when it comes to nuclear energy — where to store such spent fuel and whether the process insulates communities from harm.
“In my view, there is a vocal minority that seems opposed to anything, with the result that there aren’t really practical strategies they are advancing,” David Victor, chairman of the SONGS Engagement Panel, told this writer in email. “But the vast majority of the people are lined up around the same mission, which is safely moving the spent fuel into the storage canisters and then getting those out of here as soon as possible.”
Critics of the Coastal Commission’s current permit to store the used fuel on site say that the canisters that will eventually hold it have a “thin wall” and that those containers cannot be inspected, repaired or maintained when they are in the ground.
They say, furthermore, that such canisters can crack and release radiation — noting that precedence exists and pointing to Diablo Canyon. Moreover, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given its permission to use those thin-wall canisters and to install more than 100 of them near the San Onofre State Beach. The better solution, skeptics continue, is to leave the spent fuel where it is — in cooling ponds, where they could remain for another 40 years. But if it has to be moved and placed in canisters, then it should be few hundred yards east and on higher ground.
According to La Mesa-based Public Watchdogs, Southern California Edison may now be simulating the taking of the spent fuel rods and placing them in canisters before they would go into concrete and steel encased dry cask systems. The real process could have started as early as mid- to late- December.
“These are nuclear trash cans,” said Charles Langley, executive director of Public Watchdogs, in an interview. “They are subject to corrosion especially because of the salt air.”
Right now, there is 70,000 tons of radioactive nuclear waste that is the byproduct of about 99 nuclear generating facilities around the country. While the interim solution has been to store the used fuel on site where the plants are located, most experts agree that it should all be transported to a safe and central location where it could be permanently placed.
In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Victor pointed out that there are now 17 reactors in 14 states that are no longer operating and that have the same waste disposal issues as does SONGS. But the professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego said that he is “hopeful” that legislation could pass Congress to create an interim storage facility where spent fuel from across could be placed.
As for Southern California Edison, it would like to see the spent fuel get transferred to an interim storage facility in Texas or New Mexico. There’s also the possibility that such nuclear waste could be permanently stored at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Either idea is years away, at best.
Some background: In July 2012, Southern California Edison shut down the SONGS units because tubes located in newly installed steam generators had prematurely eroded — items that had been installed in 2009. Specifically, Unit 2 was taken down for routine maintenance. Unit 3, meanwhile, was taken off line a few weeks later because of the leaking tubes. That is, excessive vibrations caused the erosion of the tubes and the small radiation leaks. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that the public was never in danger.
Together, the units provided a total of 2,250 megawatts of power, which had been integral to the region’s economic growth. About 3.6 million pounds of spent fuel is now on the San Onofre site.
In December 2016, Southern California Edison said that it had chosen two infrastructure companies to decommission its nuclear plant and to help with the disposal of the nuclear waste: AECOM and EnergySolution. The process will take as long as 20 years, the utility told this writer.
Simply, when the nuclear plants are in operation, the spent fuel is placed in “pools” so that can be cooled for about five years. That is called “wet storage.” After it has cooled, that used fuel is then transferred to “dry storage,” or in a concrete cask. At SONGS, one-third of the spent fuel is now such dry cask while two-thirds remains in “wet storage.”
“Our plan is to transfer the remaining two-thirds now in wet storage and to place it in dry cask storage, which now holds one-third,” Maureen Brown, spokeswoman for Southern California Edison, said in an interview. “We consider dry storage a preferred option. The fuel needs to be in that canister so that it can be transferred. This is a logical step that positions you to be ready once there is an off-site storage facility.”
The spent fuel, though, will likely remain on the SONGS site for decades to come, although exactly where at the plant could be subject to change. Moving it out of California would not just take billions of dollars but also the political will, both of which are absent right now.
Ken Silverstein is an energy writer covering the global energy sector for Forbes and others.
Correction: The story should have said that there are 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste stored at San Onofre, not 3.6 million tons.