REGION — After touring the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on Tuesday, Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) announced he is introducing a bill to prioritize the disposal of spent nuclear fuel currently being stored at the beachfront facility.
Levin toured the facility along with Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) and retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Len Hering, who was appointed to Levin’s task force addressing “safety challenges” at San Onofre earlier this year.
During a press conference after the tour, Levin said he “appreciates” the work Southern California Edison has done to address the flaws that allowed a canister of spent fuel to become stuck as it was being lowered into storage.
In March, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a final enforcement decision to Edison, imposing a $116,000 civil penalty for two violations of federal requirements.
Still, Levin “remains convinced” that the NRC needs stronger oversight at San Onofre.
“I believe we do our community a disservice when we underestimate the risk caused by the fuel at this site, which poses unusual challenges due to its geography,” Levin said.
Once he returns to Washington, D.C., Levin said he plans to introduce a bill that would require the Department of Energy to consider three criteria for selecting sites nationwide to remove fuel from and transport to either an interim or permanent storage facility.
The first criteria would look at the operating status of the plant, with priority given to plants that are decommissioned or decommissioning, such as San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).
The second criteria would consider population density around the facilities. Levin said that there are 8.3 million people living within a 50-mile radius of the facility.
The final criteria would look at the potential earthquake risk at these facilities, citing two active faults and “a network of” inactive faults just off the Southern California coast.
According to Levin, the bill would prioritize sites that are at highest risk under the three criteria.
“I don’t think there is any other site in the United States that has the seismic risk, the population density and is a decommissioned or decommissioning site,” he said about SONGS. “I’m fairly certainly that we’re the only site quite like it.”
Levin noted the Diablo Canyon Power Plant and other sites in California have similar seismic risks, and sites across the country have high population density around them that could be affected in the event of a crisis.
“We have both,” he said about SONGS.
Both Levin and Rouda said sea-level rise poses an additional risk to the beachfront SONGS facility.
According to Levin, he and Rouda were unable to discuss the potential risks of scratching or gouging of canisters as they are lowered into storage at SONGS with facility officials. Levin said they plan to continue that discussion at a later date.
Rouda announced his support for Levin’s upcoming bill at the press conference.
“With that legislation, we will begin the process of doing what we should have done decades ago,” Rouda said.
According to Rouda, the federal government has “failed” the nation by not creating a plan to remove spent fuel from sites and store it safely somewhere else.
“I think one of the most concerning things I heard today was under best case scenario, when we look at the timeline to address removing the nuclear waste from this facility and other facilities across the U.S., we are talking 10 years,” he said.
Without Levin’s bill, according to the two congressmen, it could take even longer to remove and transport fuel from sites.
Levin and Rouda are hopeful that the bill will gain bipartisan support in Congress.
“This is an accident waiting to happen 100 times over across our country,” Rouda said. “This is not a partisan issue. These sites are located in districts that are represented by Republicans and Democrats.”
In early April, Levin led a letter with signatures from several other members of Congress, including Rouda, asking the House Appropriations Committee for $25 million in federal funding to support developing a consolidated interim storage program at the Department of Energy.
The funding would also assist with site preparation and regional transportation of spent fuel.
Though most of the signatures were from Democrats, Levin noted that the $25 million requested was consistent with what Energy Secretary Rick Perry has requested, adding that Perry has supported the concept of a consolidated interim storage facility being placed in his home state of Texas.
Levin also wants to have another tour of SONGS with Perry as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
According to Edison public information officer John Dobken, 102 of 123 canisters of spent fuel will be eligible for transportation to an interim storage facility by the end of 2020.
“What the industry needs is certainty,” Dobken said.
Yucca Mountain in Nevada was selected to become the nation’s permanent repository for nuclear waste in 1987.
The government spent $15 billion studying the location, and the Department of Energy began pursuing a license in 2008. The Obama Administration abandoned the project a few years later due to opposition from Nevada residents and politicians.
The Trump administration and other Congress leaders favor reviving the Yucca Mountain plan, with the administration proposing $120 million to revive the project this fiscal year.
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son