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San Onofre critics dismiss push for federal action on nuclear waste as PR stunt

A fresh effort to prod the federal government to fulfill its nearly 40-year-old promise to permanently dispose of the nation’s radioactive waste has been met deep skepticism from some critics.

To some fanfare, Southern California Edison released a plan that implores local leaders, community groups and regular citizens to demand the feds live up to the commitment they made in 1982. This failure has left millions of pounds of highly radioactive spent fuel stranded on the bluff at the retired San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station — and at scores of commercial reactor sites sprawling across 33 states as well.

The most expedient solution, according to Edison’s new plan, is for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license “consolidated interim storage” sites in New Mexico and Texas, where the nation’s commercial nuclear waste would await a permanent solution. Experts say it’s the surest way to remove spent fuel from San Onofre’s “beachfront nuclear waste dump” over a reasonable time frame, and many are pleased to join Edison’s coalition and raise their voices.

Others, however, have asked local officials to keep their distance.

This Google Earth image shows how close the expanded dry storage area for spent nuclear waste will be to the shoreline at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Image courtesy of Google Earth)

‘Communities of color’

“The coalition’s stated purpose is to lobby the federal government to provide ‘off-site storage locations’ for the radioactive waste stored at the now-closed nuclear power plant,” said a letter from activists to local officials. “Edison, however, is pushing for Consolidated Interim Storage, or CIS, which would ship the waste to communities of color in Texas or New Mexico. Communities surrounding the proposed CIS sites are outraged and have submitted more than 70,000 comments in opposition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Across the country, more than 50 advocacy groups oppose CIS.”

The letter, signed by Bart Ziegler of the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, Haakon Williams of the Committee to Bridge the Gap and several others, dismisses the efforts as a publicity stunt.

“A coalition of public officials would have the appearance of placing the public’s interests first, but any coalition formed by Edison would serve only to advance the utility’s agenda,” the letter said.

Poll: Edison not trusted

Long critical of Edison, the Samuel Lawrence Foundation commissioned a poll of registered voters in Orange and San Diego counties and found that many don’t trust Edison, which is overseeing the dismantling of the San Onofre plant

“The data make clear that large majorities of registered voters in both counties are highly concerned about the potential consequences of storing radioactive waste at the San Onofre nuclear power plant and support more transparency from utility companies when it comes to radioactive waste storage,” the report said.

“The results further show that, after learning about the radioactive waste stored at San Onofre, an overwhelming majority support more aggressive federal, state, and local action to contain radioactive waste in order to protect the environment, the economy, and our communities.”

Many other Edison skeptics have voiced opposition as well, circling back to long-standing arguments over the soundness of the Holtec dry storage system in place at the plant, the thickness of storage canister walls and whether canisters can truly be inspected, repaired if necessary and transported when the time to move them finally comes.

“The reality is that … highly radioactive nuclear waste at San Onofre is likely to remain stranded here until thin cans become unstable and impossible to transport, leaving them here indefinitely,” said Gary Headrick of San Clemente Green in an email.

The prospect of moving San Onofre’s waste to a different spot on site — farther away from the water — wasn’t seriously addressed, others said, fearing the waste will never leave the site and officials are remiss for not acknowledging and planning for it.

Edison responds

Forever doesn’t appear to be an option. The clock is actually ticking on the Holtec dry storage system, and myriad branches of government will be keeping eyes on it as the years tick by.

Jeff Carey, of Southern California Edison, takes a radiation reading from one of the Holtec HI-STORM UMAX dry storage containers for spent fuel on site at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Clemente, CA on Monday, March 18, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The California Coastal Commission’s development permit for the Holtec system expires in 2035 — and will be subject to scrutiny if and when it comes up for renewal, Edison said. Edison must study how rising sea levels affect the site, but expects it to remain viable through 2050 and perhaps longer.

The NRC license for the Holtec system is for 20 years — and will be subject to scrutiny if and when it comes up for renewal as well. The system’s design life is 60 years, but Edison expects it to last 100 years.

And the U.S. Navy — which owns the land the nuclear plant sits on — wants the site back and opposes any relocation of nuclear waste to a different spot on Camp Pendleton.

“The purpose of the strategic plan was not to look at moving it to another site on site, it was to relocate it off site,” said John Dobken, a spokesman for Edison.

Dobken understands how people can get the impression waste might be there indefinitely — the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which obligated the federal government to dispose of it in return for payments from utility customers, passed in 1982, and the Department of Energy was supposed to start accepting waste in 1998.

“And here we are, in 2021, and we don’t have a viable solution in the near term,” he said. “But these plans should be a source of optimism, that people are coming together to pick up support and make sure something happens.”

That something — federally consolidated interim storage — should be consent-based and located in a community willing to host it. Finland, Canada and Japan have managed to do it, and it can happen in the United States as well, he said.

Defense nuclear waste storage

In some ways, it already has. The government’s defense nuclear waste is permanently disposed of in an underground salt bed more than 2,000 feet below the surface in New Mexico — in a deep borehole called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. It took decades for the community to embrace the project, but it happened, Dobken said

“Our customers have paid almost a billion dollars, with accrued interest, into the federal Nuclear Waste Fund that’s supposed to pay for this. It’s very important to us to protect their interests,” he said. “The coalition will have a good effect on jump-starting this process and getting people talking about it again. Nothing will happen until we start making it happen.”

Gene Stone, of Residents Organized for a Safe Environment (ROSE) and a critic of nuclear power, once served on the volunteer Citizens Engagement Panel advising Edison on the plant’s tear-down. He quit in frustration in 2015.

“Unfortunately, when I was a member of the CEP and the NRC announced that every nuclear power plant in the nation was going to become a nuclear waste dump for 299 years, it was clear to me that they never planned to move the nuclear waste at San Onofre,” he said by email, with a flash of hyperbole.

“But that does not mean that public opinion and the groups working together on this issue cannot be a force in the safe removal of this nuclear waste from Southern California. It will take a lot of hard work and working together with the federal, state, and local officials to think out of the box to come up with a safe and effective and realistic plan that the people of California need and deserve. No one ever agreed to have San Onofre become a nuclear waste dump forever.”


Source: Orange County Register

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