It was good to gather around a table with 20 people who care about what’s happening at San Onofre, where 3.5 million pounds of radioactive waste is being stored 100 feet from the ocean. The informal group, hosted recently in Solana Beach by Bart Ziegler of the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, included eminent scientists and environmentalists.
As a journalist who covered San Onofre for seven years for KPBS, starting in 2012 when steam generator leaks were first reported, I was interested to hear a group of experts discussing the deeply disturbing questions that still swirl around the now-shuttered nuclear power plant.
In 2015, when I questioned Southern California Edison employees about the risks involved in storing high-level nuclear waste on-site, I concluded they were taking the path of least resistance because finding anywhere else to keep it appeared virtually impossible.
After all, Congress has failed so far to find a permanent storage site, though they’ve had 40 years to pick a location after accepting legal responsibility for the waste in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
So, after San Onofre closed in 2013, Edison buried the remaining high-level radioactive waste in 73 canisters on land they had already leased from the military, squeezing it near its other stored waste next to the beach. Job done.
The decision-makers would almost certainly be retired or deceased by the time the canisters reached the end of their guaranteed life expectancy. Some of the older canisters have been stored there for 25 years already.
Part of the problem is that there is no consensus about what approach to take. Most of the energy in the debate has centered on where to take it. Congressman Mike Levin, to his credit, has managed to leverage millions of dollars to start a process to find a community willing to accept it. They would store it temporarily at “consolidated interim storage” sites. This “consent-based siting” approach could take over a decade.
But a contingent at our gathering felt that it was like watching the deck chairs on the Titanic sliding sideways. History has shown the chances of ever finding a community willing to accept radioactive spent fuel are slim. Hopes that were high three years ago are already fading that New Mexico or Texas would accept this kind of waste.
Instead, they say, a safer and perhaps more honest approach would be to face the fact that we benefitted from the electricity generated at San Onofre, and we should start planning for ways to make sure it is safe on our shores for the long term.
This takes the pressure off another daunting aspect of the problem: how to move the waste, which would need special, not-yet developed transport technology and raises questions like, should the communities it passes through be informed or not? The Sierra Club’s national policy on nuclear waste disposal concludes, “Transportation could be the weakest link in the chain leading to disaster.”
In the meantime, there are more urgent concerns, like how do we know if the canisters start leaking? Mark Thiemens, former UCSD Dean of Physical Sciences at UCSD, said monitoring would effectively tell if the level of radiation escaping from the canisters is above a safe level.
Off-site monitoring is crucial to take it out of the hands of Edison, the company responsible for safely storing the waste.
Monitors exist that would give several days advance warning of the need to evacuate. But it was pointed out that with up to 10 million people potentially threatened by a problem at San Onofre, there would be gridlock if an evacuation were announced – not to mention that Interstate 5, the main artery out of San Diego County, runs right past the plant.
Understandably, most of the public would rather ignore the problem. We discussed why more young people are not up in arms about the situation. Taylor Bratton, a 26-year-old marine ecologist and a surfer, suggested bringing more surfers into the debate since they frequent the waves next to San Onofre.
But she admitted that with so much anxiety-provoking news breaking daily about the potential threats of climate change, possible nuclear waste leaks are somewhat upstaged.
One participant suggested that perhaps what may eventually make people pay closer attention is if home insurers start raising rates within a certain distance of the plant.
Since the buried canisters are mere feet above sea level, there is a valid concern about erosion and cracking of the thin-walled metal canisters. While attending one of Edison’s Community Engagement Panel meetings several years ago, we were shown slides of the concrete containers that hold the metal canisters full of spent fuel rods.
The presenter suggested that a robotic inspection device would be developed to crawl inside the array and check for cracks. No one at our meeting had heard of any such technology being developed.
Some members of our group have concluded that to take care of our radioactive waste, we need a hot cell to allow the thin-walled canisters to be replaced by thicker-walled canisters. But Peter Anderson, who led the development of the Sierra Club’s national nuclear waste policy, said he was skeptical of the benefits of thick-walled canisters.
The Sierra Club is opposed to consolidated interim storage, which would require more risky transportation in the future, and postpones the ultimate question of where the waste is to be left permanently.
Some advocate moving the waste in thick-walled canisters from its existing location to the east side of the Interstate 5 freeway. That short distance would put it on higher ground and less at risk of sea level rise and corrosion of the canisters. However, the Marine Corps continues to resist this option, saying such a move could affect force readiness.
Southern California Edison has retained experts and consultants to deliberate over alternative sites to move the waste and has said their task is to be ready when the opportunity arises.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, Edison will no longer be responsible for the waste, and it will become the Federal Government’s baby. A $5 billion decommissioning fund, collected from ratepayers over the plant’s operating life, will run out eventually, and taxpayers will have to pick up the tab — and the liability for the remaining radioactive waste.
Assuming liability may change the equation and incentivize Congress to step in and mandate that the Marine Corps allow the waste to be moved to higher ground on base. It was Congress that decreed the land on Camp Pendleton be leased to build the nuclear power plant in the first place in the 1960s.
In the meantime, we watch the slow progress of attempts to find a community willing to take the highly radioactive spent fuel rods and hope that the monitoring is adequate to give some warning if the thin-walled canisters start to erode faster than predicted.
If we care about the future of Southern California, one thing is clear: we cannot forget about the radioactive spent fuel rods lying quietly buried 100 feet from the ocean, 50 miles north of San Diego at San Onofre.
Alison St. John is an Oceanside resident and retired North County reporter/editor for KPBS.