San Onofre: Nuclear waste storage legacy of closed plant

San Onofre: Nuclear waste storage legacy of closed plant
Surfers enjoy San Onofre State Beach in the shadow of a decomissioned nuclear-fueled electricity generating plant. A settlement reached between Southern California Edison and state regulators allows spent nuclear fuel from the plant to be stored onsite. Photo by D. Ramey Logan

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.

Read more

San Onofre: Activist seeks to move spent fuel inland

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.

10 Comments
  1. Oside Concerned 1 month ago

    Ship the stuff to San Luis Obispo. Apparently diablo canyon is out of site and out of mind for half its residents which are students; maybe they need to be taught a hard lesson about the ills of capitalism and greed outside of student loans.

    The nuclear commission knew about this very problem before they even built the first reactor. Talk about procrastination and greed.

  2. Donna Gilmore 1 month ago

    Ken, I don’t know anyone who is endorsing keeping it in the pools for 40 years. That sounds like nuclear industry propaganda. Who told you that?

    The recommendation is to put it in thick-wall metal casks (10″ to 19.75″ thick) that can be inspected inside and out, that don’t crack, tbat can be repaired, maintained and monitored to PREVENT major leaks into the environment. The cans Edison chose are just over 1/2″ thick and meet none of those requirements. And they have no plan in place to prevent or stop leaks. SanOnofreSafety.org

  3. Ken Silverstein 1 month ago

    Hi Donna, the nuclear activist source quoted in the piece told me that. It was in the context, though, of leaving it in pools is a better option than placing it near the beach or in technologically inferior canisters. Ken

  4. Douglas Taylor 1 month ago

    I can’t make sense of two sentences in the article which seem to give wildly different estimates of the quantities of nuclear waste. Is there a typo or am I just missing something?

    From the 8th paragraph: “Right now, there is 70,000 tons of radioactive nuclear waste that is the byproduct of about 99 nuclear generating facilities around the country. ”

    From the 12th paragraph: “About 3.6 million tons of spent fuel is now on the San Onofre site.”

    Maybe “radioactive nucliear waste” is not the same thing as “spent fuel.” If anyone has an explanation, it would be greatly appreciated.

  5. Douglas Taylor 1 month ago

    Sorry, I meant “nuclear” not “nucliear.”

  6. Douglas Taylor 1 month ago

    Mystery solved! See the correction at the end of the article. Kudos to Ken Silverstein for monitoring the comments to his article and making the correction. That’s professional, conscientious journalism!

  7. John Eldon 1 month ago

    This country has spent millions of dollars developing and outfitting a safe nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain. Now that Harry Reid has retired, let’s open that up and start moving waste either there or to some of the other remote desert sites which have been suggested. The best locations for traditional fission plants, near water and near population centers, are also the worst for waste storage. I am strongly pro-nuclear, but the plants have to be managed properly (unlike SONGS, which was needlessly shut down prematurely), and waste has to be stored responsibly (not “On The Beach”).

    • Jeffronimo 1 month ago

      Just because Reid retired doesn’t meanNevadans are ok with being cursed with waste you created!

  8. Donna Gilmore 1 month ago

    Ken,
    The information regarding the thin-wall canisters being vulnerable to cracking, cannot be inspected for cracks, or repaired, maintained or monitored to PREVENT leaks is from Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents. All we have are promises of future solutions. If Edison or David Victor tells you otherwise, they are misleading you. Source documents on SanOnofreSafety.org. The only solution available commercially are thick-wall casks that don’t have these limitations. THICK CASKS DON’T CRACK, but Edison refused to choose those and the NRC refuses to enforce common sense basic safety standards we expect in a car: ability to inspect, maintain, repair and monitor to prevent major problems. They don’t even have an approved plan in place to stop leaks, let alone prevent them. If they tell you otherwise, please contact me. Other U.S. plants use thick-wall casks, so to say that is not feasible is not true.

  9. Dan Tangeman 2 weeks ago

    Nice … but what about.
    Being on an active earthquake fault-line?
    Being in a Tsunami zone?
    The threat of a terrorist “dirty bomb”
    being launched from the parking lot next to it.
    Or the beach erosion and the unstable bluff 108 feet from water that it sits on.
    The unsafe experimental way they are putting them in the ground. Twenty five feet tall, thin walled ,filled with helium . If they drop them two inches they could break open . Once the helium leaks out they will start heating up.
    There is not a contingency plan
    Are They just going to push it into the ocean to cool it off. That’s the only option currently. Because once the worker drops it …or punches a hole in it with his fork lift or one of a hundred possible mistakes all of Southern California is toast. It’s over…
    Radioactive waste doesn’t smell and it’s invisible. They’re are no guards to protect us. They are there to keep us out.
    Honestly no living thing will survive.
    So why do these Edison people keep pushing the idea that “everything is fine ! You know “nothing to see here . Move along now”. What kind of irresponsible slanted journalist would produce this? Sir You left out the real story.
    Our lives are in danger and this area is teetering on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe! It’s not ok!

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