San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) remains a polarizing entity since its construction in 1968. Courtesy photo
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Nuclear waste solution remains elusive amidst polarized debate

REGION — A 15-second video released on Monday, Feb. 25, by San Diego nonprofit Public Watchdogs entitled “The San Onofre Timebomb” shows the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s trademark twin reactor domes transform into bombs with lit fuses. 

The video is the latest flare in an ongoing cannonade between oversight groups and Southern California Edison over storage of spent nuclear fuel. 

But the polarized debate has failed to inspire federal action to remove the nuclear waste from the Southern California coastline to a long-term geological storage site.

Charles Langley, executive director of Public Watchdogs, said the nonprofit group is creating videos to help raise the level of public engagement when it comes to conditions at San Onofre.   

“Most of the people within the 50-mile plume radius don’t even know nuclear waste is being stored on a public beach,” Langley said. “Anybody with a lick of common sense can look at this and see it’s absolute madness.” 

Langley criticized Edison’s “cavalier” attitude towards safety, citing the company’s careless behavior after installing defective Mitsubishi replacement steam generators that led to the plant’s decommissioning in 2013.

“These are the same scientists that purchased replacement steam generators, lied to regulators, installed them recklessly and the generators shook apart after 11 months,” Langley said. “So far, the only side of the story is Edison’s side, that it’s safe and anyone who criticizes it doesn’t know the science.”

Today, roughly 3.6 million pounds of spent fuel rods are stored in approximately 50 canisters buried 108 feet from San Onofre State Beach, with another 75 containers on the way. The most dangerous by-products of spent fuel are Strontium-90, Plutonium-239 and Cesium-137. 

Edison public information officer John Dobken denounced the nonprofit’s recent “ticking time bomb” campaign, noting that the plant has safely stored spent nuclear fuel since 1970, with no impact on the environment or public health.

“I don’t understand the benefit of trying to scare people in order to make your point using information that’s factually incorrect,” Dobken said. “The energy that they put into misleading the public would be so much better utilized by putting pressure on elected officials to get the federal government to fulfill its obligation.”

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, requiring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy to locate and develop permanent geological repositories.

But after nearly 40 years of political handwringing, a lack of federal funding and a steady litigation stream, more than 80,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste have accumulated across the U.S. 

“There is absolutely no reason to keep this fuel here at San Onofre,” Dobken said. “We at Edison don’t want it here and the people in this community don’t want it here. But they don’t have anything to worry about because the fuel is safely stored.”

Langley said there is a factual gap between what Edison says publicly and reality.

“If it’s perfectly safe, what’s the urgency? The reason is it’s completely unsafe,” Langley said. 

‘Chernobyl in a can’

In November 2018, a retired systems analyst silently held up a fistful of lemons during a Community Engagement Panel discussion with officials from Southern California Edison and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regarding a near-miss canister incident on Aug. 3 at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). 

Donna Gilmore, who spent her career designing and analyzing IT systems at Caltrans and the state Controller’s Office, had a clear message: the “Holtec nuclear waste dry storage system is a lemon and poses a risk to Californians.”

When Gilmore, 71, discovered that Edison was using “thin-walled” Holtec canisters to store tons of nuclear waste at decommissioning SONGS, she saw a potential for error with an incalculable cost.

Donna Gilmore speaking with Mark Lombard, the former NRC Director of Spent Fuel Management Division in 2014. Courtesy photo

“My whole career was making sure we had redundancies and protections in place to avoid costly errors,” Gilmore said. “Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought Edison was doing the opposite.” 

Since her retirement, Gilmore has become a de facto expert on nuclear waste storage, advising Congressman Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, and 2020 presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris, D-CA. 

In January, she was appointed by Rep. Levin to a congressional task force addressing “ongoing safety challenges” at San Onofre.

For Gilmore, those challenges center on the quality of the canisters.

According to Gilmore, each of the canisters currently stored at San Onofre holds roughly the same amount of Cesium-137 that was released after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

“You basically have a Chernobyl disaster in each can,” Gilmore said.

Stephen Waters, a retired electrical engineer for Dillingham Construction during large hydroelectric projects such as PG&E’s Kerckhoff No. 2 and Edison’s Balsam Meadows, agreed with Gilmore’s assessment.

In an email correspondence with Gilmore, Waters wrote: 

“The bottom line is these tables confirm your ‘Chernobyl in a can’ claim.  Each can would contain approximately 35 times the amount of Plutonium, the same amount of Cesium-137 and roughly six times as much Strontium-90 as released at Chernobyl.”

Workers at decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) load spent fuel rods from pools, or “wet storage,” into on-site dry casks after developing an independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI). Courtesy photo/Southern California Edison

But according to NRC senior public affairs officer Victor Dricks, the nuclear waste at San Onofre has the solubility of rock and “no credible accident mechanism exists for radioactive material to leave the San Onofre site, given how much the fuel has cooled off since the reactors were shut down.”

Translation: The incredibly dense radioactive waste isn’t going anywhere.

As for the canisters themselves, the stainless steel Holtec canisters used at San Onofre are between ½ to 5/8 inches thick, or roughly the height of an unshelled peanut.

Gilmore said there are much safer canisters currently used in other parts of the world, including the CASTOR V/19 — the “Cadillac of the industry, according to Gilmore — which boasts nearly 20-inches ductile cast-iron protection.

Dobken said that particular canister hasn’t been licensed yet in the U.S., adding that the extreme level of thickness simply isn’t necessary.

Reports released earlier this year by Samuel Lawrence Foundation further supports Gilmore’s claims, finding that the damage, or “gouging,” caused to the “thin-walled” steel canisters as they are lowered into the vaults is the most serious issue facing the storage facility. 

In a 2017 report by the Electric Power Research Institute, steel canisters were found to be susceptible to chloride-induced stress corrosion cracking, chloride-rich salts combined with moisture that eat holes through metals over time. 

Several cases of through-wall cracks due to chloride-induced corrosion were reported at nuclear power stations, including Koeberg, Turkey Point, St. Lucie and San Onofre, according to a report by the NRC. 

In 2009, three examples of chloride-induced cracks were discovered in steel pipes at SONGS.

Dobken said Edison has mitigated this risk by using low-carbon stainless steel which helps protect against corrosion.

“The other thing in play, in order to have corrosion, is the presence of moisture,” Dobken said. “’But the canisters themselves are warm enough they don’t have condensation and are protected from moisture.”   

But what is more alarming, according to Gilmore and Waters, is that no approved method currently exists to deal with a failed canister.

During an Oct. 11, 2018, meeting on spent fuel storage, NRC Commissioner David A. Wright asked engineer Christian Araguas about the ability to inspect and repair canisters. 

Araguas responded that the NRC and DOE are “trying to develop techniques to be able to inspect, you know, casks in service” and hopes that “they’re going to be able to inspect these in the future,” according to the meeting transcript. 

Even more damning is the admission by Holtec President Kris Singh that it is “not practical to repair a canister if it were damaged” and that “all it takes is a microscopic crack” to get a release of millions of curies of radiation. 

However, Singh added that once a damaged canister is isolated within its concrete cask, it has entered its “next confinement boundary” and is a safe and practical way of dealing with a compromised container.   

“Why don’t they make containers that can be inspected and monitored in a manner that they don’t leak or explode,” Gilmore said. “Even the cheapest automobile can be inspected, maintained and repaired before something goes wrong.”  

What’s the plan, man?

“The first step in emergency planning is prevention,” Gilmore said. “We have to focus on prevention and not get distracted with anything else. This idea that there’s an evacuation plan is giving false hope.”

Holly Porter, director of San Diego County’s Office of Emergency Planning, said that the NRC was responsible for modeling potential disaster scenarios while SONGS was fully operational. 

The NRC established a 10-mile radius around the plant as an area susceptible to radiological fallout in the event of a disaster. 

The cities and counties within that zone — Dana Point, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Camp Pendleton and Orange and San Diego counties – as well as multiple agencies including Edison, California State Parks, American Red Cross and California Highway Patrol, formed the SONGS Interjurisdictional Planning Committee (IPC). 

The group’s stated purpose is “to promote nuclear power preparedness and preserve nuclear emergency response capability through inter-agency coordination” and communicates on a regular basis. 

“It is our position that while there is radiological material on site, while the plant is being dismantled and there is dry cask storage there, we believe we need to maintain our capabilities,” Porter said. “If something does happen, a security issue or elevated readings that need to be independently verified, we want to be prepared to do that.”

Just a couple of months ago, the IPC responded to rumors of elevated radiological readings on plant grounds, sending a nuclear physicist to conduct an independent investigation.

“We used professional equipment and were able to independently verify that there were no elevated readings,” Porter said.   

But instead of responding to rumors or allegations of heightened radiation levels, Nina Barbiaz, co-founder of Public Watchdogs, said tax dollars would be better spent investing in real-time radiation monitoring at the site. 

“We haven’t seen anything like that,” Barbiaz said in response to the county’s investigations of heightened radiation. “Why is that information not being made public? We are promoting independent, real-time radiation monitoring.”

Safety issue? 

A world-leading expert, nuclear physicist and Forbes magazine weekly contributor James Conca has publicly disagreed with the Samuel Lawrence reports and many of Gilmore’s claims, stating there is virtually no risk of waste getting outside of the plant’s boundaries. 

“Scientists hate to say ‘zero,’ so a better term is ‘vanishingly small,’” Conca said, regarding the level of risk to the public associated with the spent nuclear fuel at SONGS. “Getting up in the morning and having a cup of coffee is riskier than this waste. You can’t even measure the risk, it’s so small.”

A risk assessment of dry cask storage conducted by the NRC entitled NUREG-1864 examined a number of possible events — everything from earthquakes to cask failures — with 10-year old spent fuel and the possible risk to humans of radiation contamination. 

The study found no risk of immediate fatality and a nearly one-quadrillionth probability of latent cancer fatality.

“Just because you can imagine something, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” Conca said.

James Conca

According to Conca, active nuclear reactors pose the greatest risk of a disaster and SONGS critics have incorrectly applied the data from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster to a deactivated plant and the storage of spent fuel.

The real problem, Conca said, is our collective inability to find a permanent, long-term storage site for nuclear waste.

“Science has been killed by politics,” Conca said. “We can’t fix anything because we are paralyzed with fear. This irrational fear about nuclear waste has made us catatonic in terms of doing anything. My fear is everything stays right where it is.”

The last proposed deep geological repository at Yucca Mountain, which is located on federal land in Nevada, was approved but later defunded in 2011 under the Obama administration. 

In May 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to renew license applications for Yucca Mountain, a process still pending with the NRC.

But science and opinions have changed since Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was originally proposed in 1987. 

“It turns out Yucca Mountain is lousy rock,” Conca said. “It’s above the water table so the water oxidizes and corrodes the canisters overnight.”

Conca said there are scientists, including himself, that are trying to resurrect the idea of long-term waste storage in underground salt caverns. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, salt deposits along the Gulf Coast are stable enough for a repository. Sites at Big Hill and Bryan Mound in Texas have been used for storing millions of barrels of crude oil since the mid-1970s. 

“Salt deposits are the best place to put something that you want gone forever and ever,” Conca said. 

According to Conca, there are plans are in the works for a permanent burial site in the Delaware basin in New Mexico and Texas. 

The final decision, however, will come down to whether federal lawmakers pass legislation to fund and develop one of these locations.

“This country needs to make a decision based on science, not fear and politics,” Conca said. “It’s very safe, but you have to do it.”

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11 comments

Brian McInerny March 7, 2019 at 6:05 pm

When someone claims there is no risk in the manner presented in this article I am reminded of a salesman’s approach to convincing you to believe something. Conca seems to have drunk the Koolaid when it comes to the possibility of radiation contamination. Comparing the danger of nuclear waste to having a cup of coffee is ludicrous. If it is so harmless then why are they storing it in these extremely expensive casks? Why does it have to be buried so deeply under the earth if there is no danger? Nuclear may be clean from an air polution standpoint but the most devastating weapons in the world are based on nuclear energy. Failed nuclear plants have destroyed life in the regions they were in. That is a fact. Do some research and learn the truth don’t buy the sales pitch.

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SONGS Community March 8, 2019 at 2:23 pm

It’s not ludicrous at all, but very factual – if you look into the relative risks associated with each activity: getting up to make coffee versus properly stored spent fuel (especially if your home has stairs). Spent nuclear fuel is harmless precisely because it is stored safely and securely so that it CANNOT harm anyone and doesn’t. Can you can point to an instance where spent nuclear fuel from a commercial nuclear energy facility harmed someone? Bringing nuclear weapons into the discussion, or even working nuclear plants (talking about spent fuel in the article) simply distracts from the truth that storing spent nuclear fuel can be done safely and is done safely.

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Clay Libanoff March 10, 2019 at 5:03 pm

I am happy to see such a thoughtful reply to the last comment. Your reply is, more or less, exactly what I was going to say. Confusing nuclear weapons with disposal of waste just confuses everything.
Thank you for making this point so clearly.

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Nancy March 8, 2019 at 6:45 pm

The article doesn’t clearly show Mr. Conca’s current employment and apparent conflicts of interest in this. Please, before you call someone an unbiased expert, make sure they actually are one.
https://i2mconsulting.com/james-l-conca-phd-cv/

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Brian McInerny March 9, 2019 at 8:35 am

Getting a little defensive are we songs. Nuclear power plants have had seriously damaging and tragic accidents. Have they not? Claiming they are safe by comparing them to coffee drinking and houses with stairs is ludicrous. What happens when unforeseen events cause problems you did not anticipate? This is the crux of the issue. You do not know what the future holds but claim your spent fuel will be harmless. It is difficult to argue with someone who claims to know the future.

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SONGS Community March 9, 2019 at 10:49 am

The key point is spent nuclear fuel is not the same as a working reactor, which you conflate in your recent response. The risks involved between the two are far different and really not comparable.

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Brian McInerny March 9, 2019 at 5:05 pm

Just like coffee and stairs eh?

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SONGS Community March 10, 2019 at 1:28 pm

@Brian McInerny From a risk standpoint, no. One (working nuclear reactors) has much greater risk than the other (spent nuclear fuel storage) so to assign both the same amount of risk, or confuse the two, would be in error. That was the mistake of the Samuel Lawrence Foundation’s economic “study,” hypothesizing spent nuclear fuel could create a Fukushima-like event.

Your concern about the future is understandable and definitely taken into account. To mitigate possible future events, we study the area, see what has happened and what potentially could happen, and then design and construct to that standard, plus some additional margin. In fact the North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia (2 PWRs) experienced a beyond design basis earthquake (believe the only plant in the U.S. to experience such) in 2011 and shut down safely. It was back running 80 days later following a thorough evaluation. It also added additional margin (in the form of additional safety equipment and other measures) based on that experience. SCE is going to revisit its Sea Level Rise calculations in the years ahead to see which track SLR is taking and if anything further needs to be done.

Appreciate your interest in the issue. If you visit our website you can sign-up for updates and review information.

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Brian McInerny March 10, 2019 at 9:26 pm

I do not doubt that working reactors are more dangerous than spent fuel. However when you say that spent fuel is harmless you are only fooling yourself. If you took concern for the future into account then you would have sought other ways of supplying energy than nuclear power. The fact that there is literally toms of nuclear waste all over the world is clear evidence no one promoting nuclear power had the foresight to realize what a time bomb they were creating. Now you are telling us not to worry, out of sight out of mind. So you can see why I say you are unbelievable.

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SONGS Community March 11, 2019 at 9:02 am

@Brian McInerny Yes, there are tons of spent nuclear fuel all over the world. It came from producing carbon-free electricity which has saved millions of lives by displacing air pollution. Our focus now is on the storage of spent fuel and whether it is done safely. It is and so has been rendered harmless. There is a 50-year record at SONGS of safe spent fuel storage.

There exists wastes from every human industrial and commercial activity. Some, such as spent nuclear fuel, are well-maintained so as not to harm people or the environment. That should be celebrated. A long-term storage repository is needed, the Federal government is legally obligated.

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Simon March 17, 2019 at 2:52 pm

Why if it’s safe is a geological storage facility needed? Surely it’s safer above ground where it can be monitored? Is it the cost of monitoring aboveground storage indefinitely that has influenced people’s thinking?
Given the extremely long half-lives involved isn’it it wiser to use clean alternatives that don’t produce waste? You say it’s been rendered harmless because it’s safely stored, but that’s a huge extra expense to be taken into consideration. One final observation: the article seems to contradict itself. In one place it says the canisters don’t corrode due to water; in another it says they do. If they do, then that is a big problem as water will surely inevitably infiltrate any storage facility.

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