SOLANA BEACH — After a 2.5-hour discussion among council members and local activists at a July 10 meeting, Solana Beach City Council opted to strengthen a resolution regarding the dry storage of spent fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).
With a 4-1 vote, the council voiced its support for loading the waste into thick-walled casks — a storage option that has been debated and disputed among council members and the community at large.
The council also supported best storage practices, round-the-clock safety managers on site, improved handling practices, relocating the material away from the shoreline and fault line, and developing a comprehensive evacuation plan.
Much of the 3.6 million pounds of spent fuel at San Onofre is currently sitting in cooling pools on the site, 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.
After what many have called a “near-miss” accident in August in which a canister become stuck as it was loaded into a cement storage cavity, community members rallied in outrage over the loading process. The incident fueled a growing distrust in Edison and the decommissioning process, and drew criticism from local groups such as the Samuel Lawrence Foundation.
As Mike Levin described in a recent letter to the chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “these incidents still loom large in the consciousness of my constituents who live near SONGS.”
Edison halted loading — which is now to resume after the agency received a go-ahead from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The utility has loaded 29 canisters thus far. Edison Public Information Officer John Dobken estimated the process could be complete as early as the first quarter of next year.
Community members have generally agreed that the spent fuel should be relocated further away from the ocean. But local activists split on how exactly the fuel should be stored, a divide in opinion that has generated lengthy discussion and countless questions among the council.
At a June 26 meeting, City Council passed a resolution urging Edison keep the spent fuel loading process on hold until Edison could meet certain safety criteria.
At the time, it stopped short of taking a stance on the type of storage containers Edison should be using — which prompted several concerned residents to come back to council at the following meeting and urge for a stronger resolution supporting the thick-walled casks.
Solana Beach resident and activist Torgen Johnson urged the council to support future loading into thick-walled casks rather than the currently used thin-walled canisters.
Thick-walled casks can be more than 20 times thicker than the thin-walled casks, which are 5/8-inch thick at San Onofre. They are generally bolted shut, while the thin-walled casks are welded shut.
Local activists are particularly concerned about whether the thin-walled canisters are susceptible to corrosion and cracking.
Johnson, a program director with the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, referred to the current storage method as “a Walmart solution,” and “the cheapest configuration possible.”
When asked by council members whether switching to the use of thick-walled casks would slow the process of transferring, Johnson responded, “there’s no rush to decommission a nuclear power plant.”
“ … If you want a system that can get it out of here as soon as possible, put it in a system that was designed to do it and is designed to keep us safe.”
Active community members gave conflicting answers to some of the council’s most pressing questions — with Surfrider Foundation representative and active resident Jim Jaffee saying thick-walled casks are not certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Johnson saying “clearly they’re licensed and clearly they exist in the U.S.”
“It’s difficult to have conflicting information from people we value as experts,” said Councilwoman Jewel Edson.
Samuel Lawrence Foundation board member Cathy Iwane said the thin-walled canisters cannot be transported offsite — a point disputed by Southern California Edison.
In an interview with The Coast News, Dobken said the claim that the current canisters cannot be transported is “flat out wrong.”
Dobken said that the thick-walled casks would not be feasible for the current site, and therefore would require the development and permitting of a new site that could accommodate them. He added that the thick-walled casks are not currently licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
He added that the current storage system, manufactured by Holtec International, is “top-notch.”
“What the Samuel Lawrence Foundation is asking for would add a tremendous amount of years to the project and tremendous amount of expense, and uncertainty,” Dobken said.
Based on community feedback, the council opted to strengthen the resolution. Mayor Dave Zito voted no on the motion, and said he would prefer to await the recommendations of a SONGS task force assembled by Congressman Mike Levin.
“We can be making decisions on information that’s being presented to us, but the experts aren’t here,” Zito said.
The four other council members opted to move forward, keeping in mind that the fuel is bound to stay in these canisters for potentially up to 100 years.
“We know the casks may stay here for a very long time and there’s no permanent storage available so I believe that we need to create the safest environment for that storage, and I believe from everything that we have in front of us the thick-walled casks are the safest option,” Councilwoman Kristi Becker said.
Photo Caption: A view of the storage facilities at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. File photo
Lexy Brodt covers all things Del Mar and Solana Beach for The Coast News, with a primary interest in coastal development. A North County native turned UW-Madison alumna, she has produced for Wisconsin Public Radio and reported for The San Diego Union-Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal.