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Why Nuclear Waste Will Likely be “Buried” at San Onofre

Until a permanent repository is found, spent nuclear fuel rods will remain 100 feet from the ocean

Last Thursday at the Westside Museum in Costa Mesa, a few dozen concerned Orange County residents gathered to hear a panel of environmental advocates and watchdogs discuss the ever-evolving San Onofre Nuclear waste situation. It’s an issue that few Southern Californians know about, and even less fully understand—which makes sense, given just how complicated nuclear waste storage issues are.

The San Onofre plant, which was closed in 2013 and is now in the process of decommissioning, is currently storing most of it’s 3.6 million pounds of highly-radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods in cooling pools onsite. Unfortunately, experts say that these cooling pools are far from the safest place to store spent nuclear fuel rods long term. Pair that with the fact that the San O plant sits above a fault line and is just a stone’s throw from the ocean, and suddenly you’re flirting with potential nuclear disaster.

So what exactly should we be doing with San O’s spent nuclear fuel rods? That was the question that dominated the panel discussion on Thursday, causing an oddly-heated disagreement between a group of panelists who all want the same eventual outcome: the removal of nuclear waste from the San Onofre site.

The Surfrider Foundation’s Legal Director Angela Howe and the Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter Chair Marni Magda mostly agreed that Southern California Edison’s (SCE) plan to move the spent fuel rods into dry-cask storage (essentially meaning that rods would be placed in sealed stainless steel tubes and encased in concrete onsite at the San O plant) is the best available path forward. This method of temporary storage—often oversimplified as simply “burying” the waste—was approved in a 2015 decision by the California Coastal Commission, which permits SCE to store waste in dry casks onsite for the next 20 years. Independent science advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists has also agreed with SCE’s plan, which will see the process of transferring rods to dry casks starting as early as December this year and finishing in 2019.

Public Watchdogs’ Executive Director Charles Langley, however, argued at the Westside Museum panel that the containers that they plan to use for spent fuel rod storage are not sufficiently safe, and we should be fighting for a different type of canister that is not currently approved for the project. The containers Langley proposed have thicker walls, but according to Magda, these casks are not the industry standard, and fighting for their use would mean more time with spent rods languishing in the cooling pools. Still, Langley encouraged those who shared his view to speak out at the Coastal Commission meeting in Chula Vista on October 11, although he admitted that it was highly unlikely the already-approved plan could be stopped.


I reached out to Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, to get his take on the currently approved plan. He said, “While the debate about the dry cask container technology is important and they must be safe, it’s important to remember that is about temporary storage of the material at San Onofre. The ultimate solution, which is getting the material off the coast, requires a federally approved storage location and that remains Surfrider’s focus.”

What that essentially means is that regardless of what type of container the spent fuel rods are stored in, they aren’t going anywhere until the federal government designates a location for a permanent repository for the nuclear waste. Federal legislation that would try to revisit the much-opposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, as well as streamline the process of finding back-up sites in Texas and New Mexico, is currently in the works. But it could be years before any site is prepared to accept spent rods from San O (or any of the nuclear power plants around the nation currently storing waste on site, for that matter) which means that while getting them into dry casks to be stored roughly 100 feet from the tideline may sound ludicrous, it’s safer than the cooling pools, and likely the best that we can hope for in the short term.

In the long term, for anyone concerned with keeping nuclear waste on a fault line near the ocean (see: any sane person), it’s important to contact your representatives in the house and senate and let them know that you want lawmakers to pass legislation allowing for spent fuel rods to be quickly and safely moved as far from the coast as possible.

[Top photo by Grant Ellis]