REGION — Nuclear waste storage facilities at the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station are “fatally flawed” and could cost Southern California nearly $13.4 trillion over a 50-year period if a major release of radiation occurs, according to two reports recently published by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation.
The reports were published during an ongoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation into electric supply company Southern California Edison and its contractor, Holtec International, which designed and built the storage facility.
The investigation stems from an incident on Aug. 3, 2018, when a full canister of spent nuclear fuel came within a quarter-inch of falling 18 feet.
Edison’s plan is to move 73 canisters into the oceanfront storage vault, having already moved 29 by the reports’ publication.
After the August incident, regulators stopped any more canisters from being loaded into the vault, built to hold 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste at the San Onofre site, located on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton on the coastal side of I-5.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) began operating in 1968 and closed in 2012 after continuous leaks were discovered in the plant’s steam generator tubes.
The first report, titled “San Onofre Nuclear Waste Problems,” examines damage caused to the “thin-walled, steel” canisters as they are lowered into the dry storage vaults. The report refers to this damage as “gouging” and considers it the most serious of the issues facing the storage facility.
The report notes how storage tanks at gas stations in California must be double-walled after experiencing how single-walled containers can leak gasoline into groundwater.
“With a double-walled fuel tank, if a leak occurs it can be detected and the storage container can be repaired or replaced before any gasoline is released,” the report states. “At San Onofre, we certainly should expect that some kind of leak prevention system would be in place to contain extremely toxic high-level radioactive waste.”
At an Aug. 9, 2018, community engagement panel discussing the decommissioning of San Onofre, Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector David Fritch told attendees about a near-accident at the storage facility.
When workers using a crane were moving a canister containing spent nuclear fuel, it became lodged at the top of the cavity enclosure container into which it was being stored.
Investigations revealed the operators and managers could not see the canister as it was being lowered and became stuck for nearly an hour, hanging 18 feet in the air from the guide ring along the top of the container.
The Del Mar-based nonprofit Samuel Lawrence Foundation’s research determined that had the canister fallen, it could have hit the steel-lined concrete floor of the facility with “explosive energy greater than that of several large sticks of dynamite.” The damage could have caused a large radiation release, according to the report, and could have ruined the facility’s cooling system.
According to the report, each nuclear storage canister contains 37 spent fuel assemblies, which generate “enormous amounts of heat” and are cooled by an air duct system, which could have been blocked by the damage from a canister falling.
If that had happened, great quantities of water would be needed to cool the reaction and prevent or control a meltdown. That water would instantly become radioactive steam, similar to what happened during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.
In the report, retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Len Hering, Sr., who previously served as a nuclear weapons safety officer, provided a scathing assessment of the storage facility’s management practices.
“I find that virtually none of the protocols that should be expected for the safe handling of this dangerous material are present,” he states in the report. “I find that personnel and companies are being hired virtually off the street, no specific qualification standards are present or for that matter even required, training is not specific to the risks of the material involved, and there is no fully-qualified and certified team assembled for this highly-critical operation.”
The report also addresses the risk of storing them so close to the Pacific Ocean, where rising sea levels, frequent high humidity and coastal fog make metal susceptible to short-term corrosion and stress-induced corrosion cracking.
According to the report, the mean high tide level is about 18 inches below the base of the oceanfront storage facility, which means sea level frequently exceeds that height.
It states it’s likely that the present groundwater table will leach into the vault and result in damp storage, which the vault is not designed for.
Rising sea levels due to climate change could make things worse, potentially causing the bottom seven feet of the storage canisters to be submerged and possibility create a similar crisis to Fukushima, where spent fuel was exposed to moisture.
In the second report, titled “Potential Economic Consequences from an Event at the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station Interim Spent Fuel Storage Installation,” uses economic impact modeling software to estimate economic losses from diminished activities within evacuation zones of one, 10 or 50 miles over one year to 50 years.
In a scenario looking at contamination across a one-mile radius, the report states the most significant loss is likely the disruption of regional transportation for up to a year costing $266 million.
The 1-mile radius, which would only represent a minor event, would still affect I-5 and the rail line.
Looking at evacuation zones of 10 to 50 miles over a one- to 50-year period, residential property losses could amount to $11 billion to $500 billion depending on the evacuation scenario. In the 50-mile impact scenario, about $13.4 trillion in gross regional product could be at risk over a 50-year period.
The first report concludes that the nuclear waste at San Onofre requires “much better storage configuration” and needs to be moved to a “technically defensible storage facility” further away from major transportation corridors like I-5.
“If an accident, natural disaster, negligence, or an act of terrorism were to cause a large-scale release of radiation, the health and safety of 8.4 million people within a 50-mile radius would be put at risk,” the report states.
It also demands that a “complete analysis of canister loading procedure and comprehensive risk assessment” be conducted transparently by an independent party, and recommends a permanent stop to the loading of nuclear storage canisters into the seaside vault, to begin placing spent fuel into “reliable canisters that can be monitored, inspected and repaired” and to move them to a facility at a much higher elevation.
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