"I really wonder whether or not it will be moved in our lifetime," Dan Stetson, the Vice Chairman of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) Community Engagement Panel, tells me over the phone. "I think, realistically, those canisters are going to stay at San Onofre."
Stetson tells me this, the most sober statement I'd heard after months of interviews regarding the storage of spent nuclear fuel at SONGS, with a sigh of resignation. Stetson, the former President and Director of the Ocean Institute, shares my views (and likely yours) about San Onofre's nuclear waste, which is that it should be moved away from the coast as quickly and safely as possible. But if you look at the specifics of the nuclear waste storage situation at SONGS, and the broader history of nuclear waste in the U.S. as a whole, through a remotely realistic lens, it's hard to believe spent nuclear fuel will make its way out of San Onofre anytime soon.
If you're a Southern California surfer who has somehow managed to bury your head deep enough in the sand to not already be embroiled in the SONGS waste conversation (congratulations, you must sleep very well at night), here's the CliffsNotes on what you missed: In 2013, after SONGS experienced a multitude of problems with its steam generators, the utility company and majority owner of the plant, Southern California Edison, announced that SONGS would shut down permanently, prepare for a years-long decommissioning process and eventually load all of its spent nuclear fuel rods into temporary onsite storage until a permanent repository could be found. It's this last part that has concerned so many Southern California surfers and residents, since it means that, for the foreseeable future, 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste will sit roughly 100 feet from the shoreline with an estimated 8.4 million people living within a 50-mile radius.
In the years since the shutdown, there has been no shortage of ink spilled about why keeping spent nuclear fuel onsite at San Onofre is less than ideal, with media reactions ranging from "this situation is serious and should be monitored closely" to some version of "grab your loved ones and brace for the apocalyptic mushroom cloud that science hath wrought." In the interest of not adding to the rampant alarmism already surrounding the issue, here are a few facts you should know about nuclear fuel and the process in which it's being cooled and stored at SONGS:
SONGS' Spent Nuclear Fuel Can't Cause a Nuclear Explosion
The nuclear fuel assemblies are essentially groups of metal rods filled with ceramic uranium dioxide pellets. The enriched uranium used in these pellets, while obviously radioactive and therefore not something you want to sprinkle on your avocado toast, is not enriched to the point where it could cause a nuclear explosion. According to Azby Brown, the lead researcher for Safecast, an organization promoting independent radiation monitoring worldwide, there is “no way to turn it [spent fuel] into a nuclear bomb. The concentration of uranium-235 in reactor fuel is far too low to make a nuclear explosion. Reactor fuel is typically 2 percent to 5 percent, while weapons-grade uranium is typically 85 percent.” So even in the worst-case scenario, San Onofre and the surrounding communities would not end up a smoldering crater.
It Also Can't Create a Chernobyl-Esque Radioactive Cloud
The most famous nuclear accident in history happened in 1986 in what is now Ukraine, after a sequence of almost unfathomably-large fuck ups by plant staff led to a steam explosion, fires and a radioactive plume that precipitated onto surrounding areas. However, according to Edison representatives, at this stage in the San Onofre plant's life, even the hottest fuel on site has been cooled to the point where a steam explosion creating a radioactive plume on a Chernobyl scale could not occur.
Even if We Had Another Place to Put it, the Fuel Isn't Cool Enough to Move Yet
Nuclear fuel is hot (surprise!), which makes sense as it's used to generate steam to spin turbines to produce power. The outside surface of nuclear fuel rods are in the neighborhood of 800 degrees Celsius when immersed in water during energy production. Afterward, they're placed in vast cooling pools for years until they reach a temperature where they can be safely moved into dry-cask storage. Once everything is in dry-cask storage (mid-2019 is Edison's estimate), much of the waste will need to continue cooling for the next decade or so before it can be safely moved. This means that even if there were another place to put the waste right now, the waste can't be moved in its entirety until at least the early 2030s.
So WTF is Dry-Cask Storage?
It's like a six-pack of beer in a cooler, if the six-pack was 73 canisters filled with spent nuclear fuel, and the cooler was an enormous concrete bunker. The entire structure, which is called an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (you'll hear people in the biz refer to this as the ISFSI, pronounced "Iss-fuh-see"), uses a non-electrical ventilation system, which is good because even if the entire facility loses power, the spent fuel in the ISFSI shouldn't be affected.
It's Unlikely an Earthquake or Tsunami Would Affect the Spent Fuel
Edison says that the entire facility is built to withstand a 7.5-magnitude earthquake. According to Neal Driscoll, professor of geosciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, "We're showing 7.3 to 7.4 maximum credible earthquake on the Newport-Inglewood/Rose Canyon system," which is the fault line that poses the greatest threat to the facility. As for tsunamis, the SONGS seawall is 28-feet tall, a good 17 feet taller than the largest tsunami to ever hit the region.
So while nuclear waste is obviously not something anyone wants in their backyard, it also doesn't appear to pose an immediate threat to any of us right now. Or, as Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen eloquently put it to me a few months ago, "If there was a fire, a power outage and an earthquake, maybe we'd be fucked today. If you take 10 worst-case scenarios and stack them on top of each other, then anything can become a crisis. I'm not trying to discount those concerns, because sometimes that actually does happen, but it is unlikely."
"Right now they're moving from the most dangerous state [hot fuel cooling in pools], to a much safer state [dry-cask storage]," continues Nelsen. "There are still legitimate concerns here, but it's not a crisis. It's a situation that needs to be managed and focused on, and requires immediate federal action."
Still, there has understandably been a lot of unease in the communities around San Onofre, and a significant amount of distrust in Edison's management of the situation, which is frankly valid, given Edison's lack of transparency about safety concerns during the plant's operations. After the shutdown, the outrage of citizens and watchdog groups has been largely in response to two recent events. Back in March, a worker stopped the loading of a canister after noticing a loose bolt inside (Holtec, the manufacturer of the canisters, later said that the bolt had no effect on the canister's ability to safely store spent fuel). Then on Thursday, August 9, whistleblower David Fritch, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector, stood up at a Community Engagement Panel meeting to tell the public about an incident the previous week when he saw a canister get caught on a ledge while being lowered into a vault and nearly fall 18 feet (Edison responded by saying that the canisters are built to withstand falls from up to 25 feet).
Representatives from Edison told me that by that time Fritch came forward, they had already notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the incident (the NRC's investigation into their loading procedures is still underway, and could lead to new training for contractors in charge of loading canisters. Until then, all loading of canisters into the ISFSI has been suspended), but the fact that they hadn't shared it with the public since it occurred nearly a week before raised more than a few eyebrows.
"We looked at this as an industrial issue at the plant that at no time endangered public health," Liese Mosher, SONGS Community Outreach Manager, told me recently. "We understood what happened, and they have gone on to study it. But, obviously in the climate that we're in, it was a lesson learned for us about the extent we should proactively talk about these things. I think that you'll find that we will be doing that."
To their credit, Edison has already taken some steps in the name of transparency since the shutdown. There is no NRC requirement for a utility company to have anything like the Community Engagement Panel (CEP), made up of an independent body of academics, environmental activists, community leaders, elected officials and more in an effort to set up a two-way conduit between the utility and the community. The SONGS CEP holds public meetings where citizens can ask questions, express their concerns and speak directly to representatives of Edison. The utility also allows tours of the plant (you can sign up for one here) and even allowed a concerned former CEP member, Gene Stone, to take independent radiation readings from the site, which were consistent with Edison's own readings and well within what the NRC deems as safe.
Stetson describes the pressure and skepticism from the public as part of a "healthy process," which encourages communication and accountability and can only lead to better outcomes. But even if all local residents believed that Edison was managing nuclear waste at San Onofre as safely and transparently as possible, there would still be nuclear waste in their backyard, and no amount of careful oversight and transparent communication can make that fact completely un-scary.
"We have to keep the pressure up to make sure that the spent fuel is stored as safely as possible in the interim while it's here," says Nelsen. "We also need to be advocating for one of these other possible solutions so the waste doesn't sit here forever."
So once this fuel cools enough to be moved, what exactly can we do with it? Look no further than this limited menu of decidedly unsavory nuclear disposal options:
The Mesa/Elsewhere on Camp Pendleton (AKA Just Get It Off The Coast)
You might remember a pre-drafted letter to the California State Lands Commission (CSLC) circulating in the surf world back in August, courtesy of San O surfer and Committee to Bridge the Gap rep Sarah Brady. In a nutshell, Brady and co. believe that the CSLC should demand that SONGS come up with a plan for moving its spent fuel east of Interstate 5, to a location called "The Mesa," or another further-inland location within Camp Pendleton, before the CSLC grant Edison their decommissioning permit. Many believe this could be the simplest way to get the waste off the coast quickly, but considering it would still require approval from state and federal legislatures, and Camp Pendleton's explicit opposition to storage at the Mesa site thus far, this is an unlikely option.
Consolidated Interim Storage (AKA Can't Someone Else Deal With It For Now?)
Right now, there are two facilities—one in West Texas and one in New Mexico—that are working to obtain licenses in order to receive high-level nuclear waste from plants like SONGS, where it would be stored until a permanent repository is available. The problem is that this requires legislation at the federal level, which is no easy feat. Congress managed to pass the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act in the House of Representatives back in May, only for it to languish in the Senate, likely because it's an election year and getting the necessary appropriations would be politically difficult. There's potential for movement on this front after the midterms if there's enough political pressure to do so, but there is also resistance from (you guessed it) the communities near the proposed interim storage sites. Turns out inland folk don't like nuclear waste in their backyards either.
Permanent Repository (AKA The Best Solution That Everyone Wants, Like, Yesterday)
As part of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, Edison, like all nuclear power utilities, started paying into a fund for the construction of a permanent repository for all of the nation's nuclear waste, which would start accepting waste by the mid-'90s (yeah, they missed that deadline by 20 years and counting). Since then, Edison and other utilities have paid over $40 billion to the Department of Energy for the creation of said national permanent repository. Thus far, $15 billion of that fund has been used for the research and partial construction of an underground repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, but there have been concerns about the site's ability to safely store high-level waste and there have been over 300 legal contentions filed against the facility, and opposition from Nevada residents and politicians led to the defunding of the facility in 2011. The completion and reopening of the Yucca Mountain repository is central to the House bill that passed earlier this year, but because of the political sticking points already outlined, it may never get through the Senate, essentially making the Yucca Mountain facility little more than the world's most expensive hole in the ground. If Yucca Mountain becomes clearly off the table, legislation could potentially be passed to explore a new site for a permanent repository, if Americans take up the issue en masse.
Technically, there's a fourth option that nobody wants to talk about, except clearly it's occurred to Stetson: the nuclear waste could sit at San Onofre forever.
But it's abundantly clear that not a single one of the parties involved, from Southern California Edison to the average logger out at Old Man's on a south swell, want that to be the fate of San Onofre's nuclear waste. So how do we ensure that there is movement on this issue? Well, it's actually pretty simple: tell everyone that you don't want nuclear waste sitting 100 feet from the beach. Sure, you should tell your elected representatives first (or vote for new ones who share your concern on November 6), but it's also important to tell your friends, family, vague acquaintances, people who follow you on social media, Uber drivers (or Lyft drivers, for that matter) and even strangers who happen to walk into ranting range on the street or on the beach. The more politically popular it becomes to create permanent solutions to nuclear waste, the more likely it becomes for politicians to support federal legislation to do so.
The spent nuclear fuel at SONGS will remain radioactive for thousands of years. Edison expects the canisters the fuel is being loaded into to last for 100 years. So if it seems like a difficult, complicated problem to solve in our lifetime, when all this storage equipment is shiny and new and as safe as it will ever be, it will only become more so for whoever inherits the worn-in version. So take action while the action taking is good. Click here to find the contact information for your representative in the House and Senate, and let those who can solve this problem know that we demand a viable solution in this lifetime, preferably sooner.