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Just a few feet away, there's enough nuclear waste to decimate the planet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Just a few feet away, there’s enough nuclear waste to decimate the planet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The Inertia

San Onofre is now officially the newest garbage dump for nuclear waste. Oh, it’s been in the works for a long time now, but at the beginning of February, the first canister of spent fuel was moved (very carefully, one would assume) from their wet storage facility somewhere in the bowels near the boobs to their new, dryer home on the beach.

You know, of course, that nuclear waste is a dangerous thing. When nuclear fuel is thrown in a reactor, the fuel atom breaks into two pieces and expels a pile of energy. Afterwards, there are tiny little atoms floating around called fission products that will turn your guts into jelly and make you vomit great gouts of blood. It’s all very apocalyptic. It should be known, however, that I am a fan of nuclear power. It is incredibly efficient and doesn’t vomit out massive amounts of greenhouse gasses. With any luck, nuclear (and other forms of energy producers) will replace the oil and gas industry in the future. But man oh man, when things go wrong at a nuclear plant, do they ever go wrong.

That used fuel stays radioactive enough to be dangerous for many thousands of years, so one can only imagine how potent it is immediately after it’s created. For proof of just how long it sticks around for, one needs to look no further than a proposed central repository underneath Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert 80 miles from Las Vegas. Back during the Bush days, Las Vegas residents took offence to the idea of having the nation’s nuclear trash buried just a few miles away. The EPA at the time (R.I.P.) decided that if a facility were to be placed there, it would need to prevent any leakage for 10,000 years. A federal judge laughed in their faces and ordered the administration to require it be leak proof for one million years. In related news, Trump is asking Congress to throw $120 million at the Yucca Mountain repository in order to fund an interim storage program, a proposal that will fail miserably just as it has for the last few decades.

Without some kind of shield, a person standing near fresh radioactive waste would be smashed with a dose of radiation that would kill them in a day or so, and rest assured, it would not be a pleasant death. Similar to this, I imagine (probably incorrectly):

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Unbeknownst to most, nuclear waste is already spread far and wide across the nation. If the Yucca Mountain facility is ever approved, most of it will be moved there, but for now, it’s littered all over the place. The heaviest concentrations lean towards the east. According to the Department of Energy, here they are.

Oh shit, Illinois! You're sitting on a state full of nuclear waste! Image: DOE

Oh shit, Illinois! You’re sitting on a state full of nuclear waste! Image: DOE

Right now, the powers-that-be are pretty damn careful with nuclear waste. It wouldn’t do well in the polls, after all, if everyone was dead from radiation poisoning. It’s generally kept in massive concrete casks that are filled with water until the radiation has decayed enough and the spent rods have cooled enough—generally about five years—to be placed in dry storage, which is considered “safer”. Ideally, we could load it into a rocket and shoot it into space, where the sun would gobble it all up. Right now, though, our rockets aren’t exactly trustworthy enough to risk sending a nuclear payload into the black. If an explosion were to occur in our atmosphere, that payload to be dispersed at the whim of the winds. So for now, it’s water-filled concrete boxes followed by very deep holes at some point in the future.

Alright, now that you’re caught up, let’s get back to San Onofre. Oh, San O! That wonderful stretch of sand that is the foundation of so much history! That palm-frond shack, that sought-after club membership, those sun-kissed days where the laid-back surf culture we know today watered its roots.

In the late ’60s, San Onofre also became the foundation of the twin-reactor San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. It trundled along relatively smoothly (with the exception of a few minor hiccups like a 420-ton nuclear-reactor vessel being installed backwards in 1977) until 2012, when a bit of radioactive steam made its way outside the plant and pissed off enough people to get the whole thing shut down a year later. There are, after all, some 8 million people living within spitting distance. If you’ve driven that stretch of coastline, you’ve seen the SanO plant—two massive domes reach up towards the sky, built to contain any potential leaks. Once the place shut down, the question arose of what to do with all the spent fuel.

Nearly five years ago, in 2014, Southern California Edison, the company that owns the plant, announced that “decommissioning would take 20 years, cost $4.4 billion and spent fuel would be held on-site in dry casks indefinitely.” That, as you can imagine, didn’t go over well with the 8 million people summoning loogies from their sinuses.

“Oh shit no!” they collectively yelled, waving their signs. “Find somewhere else to put your nuclear waste!”

“Ha ha!” SCE responded. “Wave those signs all you want! We’re doing it!” And now they are. By the middle of 2019, Edison plans to have moved some 3.5 million pounds of spent fuel into dry cask storage, from where it will likely not be moved at any point in the foreseeable future. Already, just over a third of the waste in the facility is in dry storage. The stuff that’s being moved is all in wet storage.

So how, exactly do you store a bunch of the world’s most dangerous shit? In something called fuel assemblies. Each one holds around 250 spent rods. When the assembly is full, down it goes into a big steel can with double lids, both welded. Then, on top of that, there’s another lid that’s 3 feet thick. According to Edison, their dry storage system is bomb proof, earthquake proof, tsunami proof, tornado proof, and vampire proof. To hear them tell it, ain’t nothin’ getting in there and ain’t nothin’ getting out.

“私はそれを見たとき、私はそれを信じています,” said the workers over at Fukushima.

The new storage facility sits just 100 feet off the water’s edge at San Onofre, and sits behind a large, squat wall nearly 30 feet high. Some San Clemente residents are livid that their concerns were ignored. “Do you realize what a breach of those canisters would do to our local economy, our state economy, our national economy, our international economy and we’re allowing Edison to call the shots on this?” Donna Gilmore told the Orange County Register. “I’m going to keep fighting this.”

So where else could all that nuclear waste go? Well, that’s a bit of a problem. Across the country, there’s something 80,000 tons of it sitting around in various places. That’s because there’s simply nowhere for it to go—it’s so dangerous to have around that no one wants a giant pile of it sitting in their backyard. What that means, unfortunately, is that a whole bunch of people have smaller piles on their doorstep. And unless Elon Musk has a better idea (he probably does), that’s where it’s going to stay.