SOLANA BEACH — Amidst ever-rising tensions over the storage of spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, Solana Beach City Council voted 4-1 at a June 12 meeting in favor of halting the current loading of radioactive waste into thin-walled canisters until the council’s safety concerns can be addressed.
Southern California Edison, which owns and operates the now defunct station, was previously in the process of transferring approximately 3.6 million pounds of spent fuel into thin-walled canisters. The process allows the fuel to be cooled, so it can eventually be transported off-site.
The transfer is a temporary solution to dealing with the quantity of fuel onsite, with a long-term solution likely requiring legislative action.
After a “near-drop” incident in August prompted widespread alarm over the way the fuel was being transferred, officials halted the process. However, it was recently announced that Edison is just weeks away from continuing the process of transferring the fuel to the thin-walled canisters.
Many believe the thin-walled canisters to be a defective method of storing the spent nuclear waste — which currently sits about 100 feet from the shoreline at San Onofre.
So far, 29 canisters have already been loaded — and Edison plans to load an additional 44.
With Edison on the verge of restarting loading after almost a year on pause, Solana Beach is taking a stand. The council’s resolution urges Edison to stop loading spent fuel into thin-walled canisters, until parties can identify a new temporary storage alternative that proves to be more secure.
In the resolution, the council expressed its support of regular inspection and monitoring requirements, that such monitoring data be made public, and that Edison develop procedures for on-site canister repair and repackaging.
The resolution also calls for long-term action: moving the waste inland away from the risks imposed by sea-level rise, as well as congressional action to open a permanent national repository for nuclear waste disposal.
The item’s public speakers were at a general consensus over the danger of the current loading system – as well as a long-term desire to move the waste as far away from the coastline as possible.
Don Mosier, a former Del Mar city official, described the thin-walled canister transfer as “a system that really dooms the waste to stay at San Onofre for literally thousands of years.”
Mosier, as well as Mayor Dave Zito, is a member of a task force assembled by Congressman Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) to address questions and help formulate solutions to the “safety challenges” of decommissioning San Onofre.
However, some urged the council to take the extra step of supporting a complete halt to loading thin-walled canisters, which it did, and to also support the use of thick-walled casks in loading the remainder of the spent fuel — which it did not.
After discussing concerns related to thick-walled casks, council opted to avoid encouraging its use in the resolution, pending further study by Levin’s task force on best practices moving forward.
Solana Beach resident Torgen Johnson, an ardent local voice when it comes to the nuclear generating station, was at the forefront of advocating for thick-walled casks at the meeting. He proposed a revised resolution to the council that would support “the exclusive use of robust thick-wall nuclear waste storage casks,” it reads.
The thick-walled casks Johnson recommends are about 20 times thicker than the current thin-walled canisters being used. He said the thicker casks are not prone to cracking and corrosion in the way the thin-walled canisters can be, and they are also able to be inspected and monitored.
“What the thick casks get us is peace of mind until we can find a long-term storage solution,” Johnson said.
Council members were concerned about the process of transferring spent fuels from the thin-walled canisters to the thick-walled casks. When Deputy Mayor Jewel Edson asked Johnson about the possible dangers of transferring the materials, Johnson responded, “nobody knows, it’s never been done before.”
Not all local parties have supported the idea of thick-walled casks. When the city agendized the issue in February, Mandy Sackett, a California policy coordinator with the Surfrider Foundation, said thin-walled canisters are “the norm” for spent fuel storage across the nation, and worried that transferring fuel to new containers could be “very risky.”
At the June 12 meeting, Johnson said that loading the remaining fuel into thick-walled casks is “common sense.” But for the already-stored fuel?
“They’ve put us in a predicament,” he said.
Citing the urgency of the issue, council opted to pass a resolution calling for the loading of spent fuel to stop, and that Edison not continue loading until the safety outlines mentioned in the city’s resolution can be met.
Councilwoman Judy Hegenauer voted “no” on the resolution.
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.