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Community Commentary Opinion

Still Getting it Wrong: The Samuel Lawrence Foundation and Spent Nuclear Fuel

By John Dobken, Media Relations Manager for Southern California Edison

There is a huge difference between “downplaying risks,” as the Samuel Lawrence Foundation asserts, and appropriately assessing risk and then mitigating, or lessening that risk.

For instance, Southern California Edison assessed the seismic risk of the location for the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) before construction. Based on that assessment, the ISFSI was constructed to withstand the expected seismic forces for its location, with substantial additional margin.

Subsequent peer-reviewed research from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reduced the seismic potential of the area, but by then the ISFSI was already constructed to the higher standard and remains so.

The Samuel Lawrence Foundation, and others, speak of the hazards (earthquakes, tsunamis) but never the actual risk of those events happening, though they dismiss claims of “zero risk.”

However, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission document (NUREG-1864, A Pilot Probabilistic Risk Assessment of a Dry Cask Storage System at a Nuclear Power Plant, pg. xii), which the Samuel Lawrence Foundation cited on page 5 of its report “San Onofre Nuclear Waste Problems,” makes clear there can indeed be “zero risk” in some cases.

“Some of the scenarios have zero risk because either their initiating events cannot occur at the subject plant or no radioactive release will result. The overall risk of dry cask storage was found to be extremely low.”

There is likely “zero risk” that the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in the Arizona desert would be challenged by a tsunami, for instance. Likewise, there is zero risk of a Fukushima-like event happening with spent nuclear fuel at SONGS.

We know this because the fuel is sufficiently cooled to make impossible the series of events necessary for such a scenario to play out. Reasonable people can accept this and move on. Those invested in disinformation tend to not let facts influence their assertions.

To be clear, here is what we have stated: from the Aug. 3, 2018 canister downloading incident there was no risk to the health and safety of employees or the public from a breach of the canister, had a drop occurred (which it didn’t).

We know the canister would not have breached from a deterministic analysis that looked at what would happen if the canister dropped from 25 feet instead of the 18-foot scenario of Aug. 3. The results were no breach of the canister from a 25-foot drop and no release of radioactive material. This analysis also has additional margin built in.

The Samuel Lawrence Foundation states: “With certainty, we claim that there is no evidence nor data to show or prove the 18 foot drop of a fully loaded canister is safe, will not breach, and ‘no radiation will be released.’”

The full “drop analysis” is proprietary to Holtec International and therefore unavailable to the public and the Foundation. SCE posted the non-proprietary version to our website. However, the full version of the analysis was provided to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for review and it has been acknowledged in public meetings and public documents.

Regarding a catastrophic release of radiation, we have echoed what the NRC said very clearly, that there is no credible scenario that would result in an off-site release of radiation impacting the health and safety of the public. No credible scenario.

The Samuel Lawrence Foundation, despite releasing two studies and a “rebuttal” still has not outlined a scenario in which the statement from the NRC would not be true. Simply saying there are “earthquakes” and “faults” in the area without also acknowledging the robust engineering and construction of the spent fuel installation to mitigate any seismic event is intentionally misleading.

Finally, the self-proclaimed “architect” of the Foundation studies has made wholly inaccurate statements in the media regarding matters of basic fact. For instance, in one 2017 KPBS interview, Tom English said regarding Fukushima “(The plant) had two (spent fuel) pools melt down completely.”

That is a false statement. A year earlier, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published an exhaustive report on Fukushima and its spent fuel pools. Nowhere in the report does it say any of the fuel in the pools melted down, nor was even exposed to air.

When English spoke at a symposium for Residents Organized for a Safe Environment, he misrepresented the downloading of spent fuel canisters at SONGS. A crude PowerPoint drawing English created showed a multipurpose canister tilted at an angle unachievable in real life (due to the piece of equipment missing from his drawing, the HI-TRAC). This HI-TRAC is also missing from a laboratory demonstration seemingly used as the basis for one Foundation report.

There are many credible voices on nuclear energy matters in Southern California and nationally. The least credible, though, are often featured prominently without the necessary scrutiny of their science or engineering statements (see this Los Angeles Times Op-Ed from another Samuel Lawrence Foundation member). Time and again, the Samuel Lawrence Foundation has proven itself to be a purveyor of junk science, fear-mongering and disinformation.

Continuing to misrepresent the science of spent nuclear fuel will only hurt efforts to move it to another location, whether that be for permanent or temporary storage. And that is precisely where the focus needs to be. We all agree the spent fuel should be moved away from San Onofre, we actually share that common ground.

Building from that, working together, is where we can make a positive difference. In the meantime, Southern California Edison is committed to the safe and secure storage of spent nuclear fuel.

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