“Everything you see around you is essentially scrap.”
Ron Pontes, manager of decommissioning environmental strategy at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and I were standing on the grated steel floor on the second level of what was once a fully-operating nuclear power plant. I looked between my toes as my hard hat shifted on top of my skull. Past my plastic protective glasses, I could see through the grating to the first level, fifteen-or-so feet below us. Mild acrophobia set in.
“Now, when this was in operation there would have been hundreds of people pouring in and out of here at any given time, not to mention the whirring of machinery,” Ron continued. “When Southern California Edison elected to close the plant, staff was significantly reduced.”
Since its construction in the late 1960s, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) has been the source of much controversy. Something about millions of pounds of apocalypse-inducing chemicals sitting next to the Pacific Ocean, a major highway, a fault line, Los Angeles to the north, and San Diego to the south hasn’t sat well with many SoCal residents and environmentalists. In 1977, over a thousand anti-nuclear protesters gathered to challenge the construction of units two and three – the generators known today for their unfortunate similarity to the female anatomy. In 1982, 15,000 people gathered in Laguna Niguel, a stone’s throw from the plant, to protest its existence. Suffice it to say, recent flare-ups concerning the decommissioning process, and specifically how Southern California Edison is storing spent nuclear fuel at SONGS, has been a problem for a generation with different window dressing. But, that doesn’t mean the public doesn’t have a right to be concerned.
At present, 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel sits at SONGS with nowhere to go.
Back in 1987, Congress recognized the need for a national long-term repository for spent fuel at nuclear-generating stations across the country and acted to create one deep in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The project faced serious backlash in Nevada and from the Shoshone and Southern Paiute peoples. As a result, it was stripped of its funding under the Obama Administration in 2011. Currently, there’s no political consensus regarding where in the U.S. an alternate long-term storage site should be built, although Texas and New Mexico are potential options. Some have also proposed so-called “interim” storage solutions, or facilities that could take spent fuel from plants across the country and store it until a long-term facility is constructed.
In the meantime, Southern California Edison has taken to moving spent nuclear fuel – also called “assemblies” – from cooling pools to dry casks and storing them on site. Initially meant to be a short-term solution, the move has become a de facto long-term solution as efforts to create a new long-term repository or interim storage facility have been met with characteristic legislative gridlock.
During a tour of SONGS, Southern California Edison staff assured me that dry cask storage is, in fact, safer than wet storage.
“For wet storage, you need a constant supply of power to the pools for cooling,” Pontes told me. “Dry storage, on the other hand, is a completely passive system. Cool air comes in from the breeze, and hot air comes out.”
And while SONGS staff is confident in the safety of the independent spent fuel storage installations (ISFSIs) wherein giant 5/8″-thick stainless steel alloy canisters are placed in a concrete pad several feet above the water table, many in the community have expressed their concern about the proximity of metal containers to corrosive salty air. Most notably, former NRC Chief Greg Jaczko.
“You have to recognize that this is not a short-term solution,” said Jaczko in an interview with KPBS News. “Whatever is going to be done with this spent fuel is probably going to happen to this fuel for decades if not centuries.”
Jaczko is particularly concerned that with sea level rise over the next several decades, water intrusion could be a serious issue leading to corrosion and leakage.
“I think an approach where the fuel is much more accessible is a much better approach, and where the fuel is not as close to the coast,” he said.
The decommissioning process has also seen moments where Southern California Edison’s transparency has been called into question.
In April, an issue with faulty shim pins was reported by the LA Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Edison has downplayed the implications of the issue. And during a Community Engagement Panel in early August, David Fritch who identified himself as a worker associated with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration revealed that safety shortcomings in the canister loading process nearly resulted in one canister “falling 18 feet.” Fritch blamed Edison for not being forthright about what was going on, although there is still uncertainty if the mishap posed any threat to the public.
In many ways, the public’s wavering trust in Southern California Edison has obfuscated the fact that in broad terms, Edison’s goals are very much aligned with that of the general public. It’s also precisely the reason Edison created a Community Engagement Panel, which meets quarterly, in the first place.
“We’re very much aligned with the folks here that want to see the fuel move sooner than later. We do, too,” Pontes told me in a boardroom after our tour. “We’re basically for a permanent facility, a consolidated interim storage facility. Any answer that would get the fuel moved off of this site.”
According to Dr. David Victor, professor of international relations at UC San Diego and chairman of the Community Engagement Panel, the obstacles are all political.
“The really big frontier is political,” Victor told me. “It’s helping communities like ours understand our common purpose and mission and join up around that. And then getting folks in Washington to deliver on that.”
At present, there are two bills in Congress that could move the needle at San Onofre and the numerous decommissioned plants across the country dealing with this same issue, though some groups are concerned about the long-term effects. The first was introduced by Representative Darrell Issa in 2017, and would authorize the “Secretary of Energy to enter into contracts for the storage of high-level radioactive waste or spent nuclear fuel, take title to certain high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, and make certain expenditures from the Nuclear Waste Fund.”
The second bill, introduced by Representative John Shimkus in 2017, is similar to Issa’s bill, but, according to the Surfrider Foundation “would weaken government regulation over choosing and maintaining depository sites, and weaken the link between interim storage and establishing a final depository.”
Shimkus’ bill has received bipartisan support as well as a White House endorsement, but expedited timelines “at the expense of environmental review processes,” are cause for concern for the Surfrider Foundation and other environmental groups.
“The only way we make this an issue is by being vocal in our local communities, at the state level, and at the federal level,” Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen told The Inertia. “We need to be reaching out to our representatives and say ‘This is a priority issue and you need to help us deal with this.'”
That thought is especially prescient given the upcoming November mid-term election.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease in Congress,” said Nelsen. Time will tell if the storage of 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste very near one of the most storied beaches in Southern California is “squeaky” enough to get Congress’ wheels turning, or if that waste becomes a permanent fixture.
Editor’s note: To get further educated about this issue, and to see the plant firsthand, we highly recommend that you attend a Community Engagement Panel meeting, or schedule a public walking tour of the now-decommissioned plant. Learn more here.
Video shot by Ryan Trautwein, Aika Lau, and Connor Guest. Edited by Ryan Trautwein.