By David G. Victor, Daniel T. Stetson and Martha McNicholas
On August 7, the last of the spent nuclear fuel storage canisters was lowered inside a concrete and steel bunker at the site. Over the next decade the rest of the site, including the domes, will come down. But the bunker will stay until there is new federal policy that can move the spent fuel.
Over the years, there has been vehement disagreement about San Onofre, but we hope there is one topic on which everyone agrees: the spent fuel must be removed.
As officers of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel (CEP), a volunteer organization tasked with helping improve communications between SCE and the local communities, we have been on the front lines of these debates. We convene regular meetings – all open to the public, with video documentation online and archived – with the top nuclear experts in the country presenting their views and data to the public.
We have looked at every aspect of the plant—even topics, like terrorist threats, that are hard to talk about without classified data. No other nuclear plant in the country has had so comprehensive a program for public engagement than the one at San Onofre.
In our meetings, no subject has generated more concern than the problem of moving the spent fuel. Across the political spectrum, people are shocked and angry to learn that the decommissioning of the plant does not mean the removal of everything.
The problem is that there is no place to send the fuel rods. Back in 1982, Congress outlined its vision in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and in the years since that vision has turned into a pernicious plan: stick Nevada with the fuel at Yucca Mountain.
The US Government has already spent more than $15b investigating the site in the desert outside Las Vegas; it has learned a lot of science, but it now looks unlikely the site will ever open. Yet 17 reactors at 14 sites in 11 states that are no longer operating — reactors, like here at San Onofre, that have no place send their spent fuel because political gridlock, like at Yucca, keeps their fuel stuck onsite.
The government collected a huge pile of cash, amassed into a $46 billion fund according to the 2016 audit, to pay for permanent disposal. The Federal government is now in breach of contract and some utilities have sued to get back the money that belongs to their customers. Each step in the Yucca logic is easy to understand, but the story overall hasn’t solved the waste problem.
We here in the communities around San Onofre must lead the way for a solution. No community is more focused and organized; none has a Congressional delegation so ready to act.
The solution isn’t doubling down on Yucca Mountain. The politics in Nevada are too fraught and flaky to make that a viable plan. Nice-sounding ideas — like moving the spent fuel on to Camp Pendleton or to the Palo Verde Nuclear plant in Arizona (which is partly owned by California electric companies) — are interesting to think about. They need constant probing and updating as new political forces alter what is practical in the real world — so that we aren’t tilting at options that won’t work in reality.
Realism demands, too, that we focus on what’s clearly the best solution: “interim storage”—a safe place to send the spent fuel while the nation works out better options than Yucca and while new technologies create new options for permanent disposal.
Two sites — one in New Mexico and another in Texas — are already lining up. More will follow if a change in federal law makes interim storage a viable option. We may not want to store spent fuel here at San Onofre, but other communities are keen for the business.
Success requires at least two things. First, we must get the California delegation fully aligned on this mission after the November election. Some members are reliably engaged — like Dianne Feinstein, Scott Peters, Mike Levin, Harley Rouda, Salud Carbajal, and Tony Cárdenas — but many are not.
We must reach out to build a bigger coalition that shows California’s strength and also engages other communities around the country that are in the same pickle—from Illinois to Ohio, Vermont, New York, Texas and many other states that span the political spectrum.
Second, and probably harder, we must band together as a community to focus on the big picture. Passion and acrimony around San Onofre have led to wild claims about the dangers of spent fuel storage in stainless steel canisters.
Those have needlessly rattled the local community and are fodder for other communities that watch us and wonder: why would we want to be interim storage sites? The lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, global warming and many other dangers are that good policy must start with science. The same is true here.
David G. Victor, CEP Chair, UCSD Professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, Adjunct Professor in Climate, Atmospheric Science & Physical Oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Daniel T. Stetson, CEP Vice Chair, President Emeritus of the Ocean Institute, Executive Director and Trustee of The Nicholas Endowment
Martha McNicholas, CEP Secretary, Capistrano Unified School Board Vice President and Trustee, Retired Engineer.