Public Watchdogs, a local watchdog group, has filed a petition to put a halt to dismantling actions at the seaside plant. Courtesy photo
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Council calling on state to address SONGS, nuclear storage

CARLSBAD — Nuclear waste storage is arguably one of the hottest button issues regarding Southern California’s coastline.

On Sept. 10, the City Council approved a resolution calling on the state legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom to address the concerns regarding the safe handling and storage of nuclear waste at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which went offline in 2013.

One challenge, though, is decommissioning SONGS, which requires the transfer of spent fuel into safe storage, along with the removal and disposal of the remaining materials.

This battle, however, centered on SONGS’ current stainless-steel canisters, while the council supported dray cask storage. Currently, 31 canisters are in a storage vault with another 42 awaiting transfer, according to the resolution.

Cathy Iwane, who sits on the board of directors for the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, which has acted as a watchdog over SONGS, said no resolution is in sight for storing spent fuel.

“Science and climate change dictate that water levels will only rise in the coming years,” she said, “and yet, SCE is loading our waste into dangerous, subpar, thin-walled designed, 5/8-inch waste canisters.”

Most of the 3.6 million pounds of spent fuel at SONGS is currently on site in cooling pools awaiting transfer to dry storage. The site’s operator, Southern California Edison, is in the process of loading the rods into thin-walled canisters to be stored in cement chambers — a storage solution meant to keep the fuel safe until a long-term storage option becomes available further away from the shoreline, according to a July 18 story in The Coast News.

Residents and critics called an Aug. 3, 2018, a “near-miss” accident in which a canister become stuck as it was loaded into a cement storage cavity. The accident spurred outrage over the loading process. The incident fueled a growing distrust in Southern California Edison and the decommissioning process and drew criticism from local groups such as the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, which helped prepare the Carlsbad resolution.

John Dobken, public information officer at SONGS, said the issue of spent nuclear fuel is an item city councils should take up, especially those close to a nuclear facility. He said the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the U.S. Department of Energy to construct a permanent storage facility, but political pushback, notably in Nevada with Yucca Mountain, has yet to materialize a permanent waste site.

“The canister downloading event on Aug. 3, 2018, at San Onofre should not have happened,” he said. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducted numerous inspections and reviews since then. SCE made comprehensive changes and improvements to fuel transfer operations so there is not a repeat of Aug. 3.”

Dobken said the resolution contains multiple errors and misleading statements despite efforts to correct. One issue he took up was the 50-mile emergency planning zone, which has not been applied to SONGS.

“Since 2015, the two highest emergency classifications … no longer apply to SONGS,” Dobken said. “That’s because no radioactive material could leave the site boundary.”

3 comments

Charles Langley September 19, 2019 at 5:54 pm

To state openly that “no radiological event can occur at San Onofre” is an outrageous claim that reeks of either hubris and scientific ignorance. When the Titanic sailed, the newspapers touted “Not even God could sink her.” Mr. Dopkin appears to be makings a similar claim.

There are a variety of likely situations, including an attack by terrorists, earthquakes, tsunamis, stress corrosion, or even an unexpected “Black Swan Event” that could result in a world-class radiation disaster at SONGS. To say or suggest otherwise is deceptive.

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SongsCommunity September 23, 2019 at 12:19 pm

The reporter has since corrected the story to reflect what was actually said.

However, Mr. Langley, and his group Public Watchdogs, continues to mislead regarding spent nuclear fuel.

In its recent lawsuit, PW makes the following errors:

The lawsuit claims the Aug. 3, 2018, canister lowering event “could have turned … much of Southern California into a permanently uninhabitable wasteland.” Detailed studies, reviewed and validated by a respected engineering firm and the NRC, showed that had the canister dropped 18 feet, there would not have been a radioactive release. This point is detailed in the NRC’s final supplemental inspection report (July 9, 2019, p. 30). In fact, since 2015, no credible accident scenario exists in which radioactive material could leave the site boundary at San Onofre.

The lawsuit also misrepresents a canister placement on July 22, 2018. During the placement of that canister, the crew experienced some delays in aligning the canister properly before safely lowering it. The canister was always supported during this time. However, Public Watchdogs claims the canister “nearly dropped,” which would have “turned San Onofre State Beach Park into a permanently uninhabitable nuclear wasteland.” Here’s what the NRC said during its Nov. 8, 2018, webinar about the placement: “ … during that time, never was the MPC, or the canister, not suspended by the slings, every time they attempted to download, they caught the loss of load condition … ” and “ … So they (SCE) were always within procedure during this event … ” Further, as already stated and verified, a dropped canister would not result in any release of radioactivity.

The Public Watchdogs filing and subsequent correspondence reveals a misunderstanding about the dry storage systems in place at San Onofre. The lawsuit claims SCE is “… burying those canisters.” In fact, the Holtec storage module is an engineered concrete monolith with stainless steel vaults, and a seismic rating twice that of the (wet) spent fuel pool storage systems. A removable lid made of steel and concrete is placed on top of the vaults. After the court set the Sept. 20 date to submit filings, the attorney for Public Watchdogs took the unusual step of writing directly to SCE on Sept. 6 asking for a voluntary halt to fuel transfer operations. In the letter, attorney Eric Beste writes one reason for the halt is “that the technology does not presently exist to remove canisters that have already been buried.” During practice runs, SCE routinely placed a simulated canister into dry storage and then removed it. Demonstrating this capability is required prior to the NRC’s approval to move fuel into dry storage.

Another allegation in the lawsuit, that “there is an imminent danger that the canisters will fail” is not accurate. Similar dry storage canister systems are in use all over the U.S. and have been since 1986. Currently, nearly 3,000 canisters are in service in the U.S. — none have released radioactive material to the environment. The canisters in use at San Onofre have a design life of 60 years and a service life of potentially 100 years or more. Due to radioactive decay, fuel in dry storage is significantly less hazardous than fuel in a recently shutdown reactor, with no motive force within the canister to propel material into the environment.

Regarding the incidental contact that may occur during spent fuel canister lowering, Public Watchdogs calls it gouging, but then quotes the NRC regional administrator as saying the canisters experienced “a little bit of scuffing” and “a little bit of contact.” The lawsuit also claims the issue wasn’t thoroughly vetted. In fact, SCE performed a detailed visual assessment of eight stored canisters using a high-resolution borescope. The results were presented to the NRC, which independently verified the “scuffing” and “contact” did not affect the safety function of the canisters. (See the NRC’s final supplemental inspection report , July 9, 2019, p. 34)

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Donna Gilmore September 20, 2019 at 6:34 am

The new Holtec thin-wall canister system is so bad, the walls of every thin stainless steel canister are unavoidably gouged as the canisters are downloaded into carbon steel lined storage holes. The NRC admits this also causes galvanic corrosion as carbon particles are embedded into the steel walls. Canisters are also susceptible to cracking from the moist salt marine environment. San Onofre has a history of this type of corrosion cracking. Instead of requiring these pressure vessels meet ASME N3 Nuclear Pressure Vessel certification requirements, the NRC ignores these requirements. The NRC, Edison and Holtec admit canisters cannot be inspected for cracks or repaired. They use the term “inspection” loosely, misleading our elected officials and the public.

It’s impossible to meet ASME inspection and repair requirements with this inferior design.

Instead of safe nuclear storage, Holtec created a perpetual canister gouging system. Even if the canisters could be inspected and repaired, as soon as they load the canisters into or out of the storage holes the canister walls are gouged again! A similar problem occurs with all Holtec thin-wall above ground dry storage systems. The NRC ignores these issues.

The solution is to use thick-wall casks (10″ to 19.75″ thick) which have been approved by the NRC in the past for storage and transport, and are the proven standard in most of the world. They can meet ASME safety standards for in service nuclear pressure vessels. Thick-wall casks survived the Fukushima tsunami and 9.0 earthquake. Thin canisters with even partial cracks have no seismic earthquake ratings.

Edison refused to allow bidders of thick-wall casks. Edison’s goal is to expedite the fuel out of the pools in order to save millions of dollars every year in overhead costs. They bragged about this in a trade article.

The over $4 billion ratepayer funded Decommission Trust should be used to replace all canisters and store all San Onofre fuel waste into thick wall casks that meet monitored maintainable retrievable fuel storage and transport requirements. Current federal law, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, requires this. Instead, a large number of Democrat and Republican federal legislators voted for the H.R.3053 Shimkus/Issa bill last year. That bill would have eliminated these safety requirements if it had passed the Senate. That bill would have also allowed Edison to turn over this mess to the federal government, with no funding for the dry storage systems. A similar bill is in play this year. Demand our local, state and federal legislators actively oppose any bills that allow this.

Until we have a President who only appoints safety conscious NRC Commissioners and a Senate that will only confirm safety conscious Commissioners, this problem won’t be solved at the federal level. Right now, we only have one NRC Commissioner who puts safety before industry profits.

At this point our only solution is for Governor Newsom to require the California Public Utilities Commission freeze the Decommissioning Fund until these issues are resolved.

Instead, the California Coastal Commission staff is recommending a Coastal permit that allows destruction of the spent fuel pools, even though they know a pool or dry fuel handling facility (hot cell) is needed to replace defective canisters.

Defective and leaking canisters cannot be transported. The Coastal Commission staff admits transport is a requirement of the San Onofre dry storage Coastal permit, yet the Coastal Commission refuses to enforce it.

These and other state agencies are ignoring all these problems, even though the financial and coastal issues fall within state authority. The state has no authority to regulate nuclear radiation safety issues, due to federal law preemption.

What is the NRC and Edison current solution? Hide radiation releases from the public. There are 51 San Onofre aging above ground NUHOMS thin-wall canisters up to 16 years old. The NRC and Edison refuse to tell us the radiation levels from the outlet air vents where these canisters are stored. This is where radiation levels are highest from cracking, leaking canisters. Edison admits each canister contains roughly the amount radiation released from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

At an NRC Nuclear Waste Conference this week, Orano, who makes the NUHOMS canisters, told the utilities they should hide from the public any problems they find with these nuclear waste dry storage systems. They offered a method to hide the data from the public and collect it on a private system where the public would have no access. Instead, this information should be made public at the NRC.

This is a now problem. We cannot kick these Chernobyl disaster cans down the road any longer. Proposals to transport these cracking Chernobyl cans somewhere else will no more solve our nuclear waste problem than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic would have stopped it from sinking.

Go to SanOnofreSafety.org for more information.

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