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Commentary: On San Onofre panel’s commentary — we disagree

By Bart Ziegler

A Sept. 18 commentary in The Coast News made an important point, one we agree with 100 percent, right in the headline: “Next at San Onofre? Remove the fuel.”

From there, however, the piece signed by three members of Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Community Engagement Panel runs short on fact and long on omission, obfuscation and self-congratulations.

We can’t blame the authors for skipping these disclosures: The Community Engagement Panel is a creation of Southern California Edison. Its members are hand-picked by the utility, which rejects and rebuffs contrarian information and experts. 

At this point, most stakeholders consider the panel’s meetings a waste of time and skip, or outright boycott, the sessions. The panel’s brand of engagement, as we see it, is little more than theater scripted by Edison’s well-funded public affairs office.

Here’s how we would set the stage:

• Nearly 3.6 million pounds of highly-radioactive waste, the most hazardous material known to humankind, is stranded at San Onofre;

• The current storage facility that houses the dangerous waste is located about 100 feet from the rising ocean;

• The spent nuclear fuel is stored in thin-walled, steel canisters which are prone to damage;

• Those canisters aren’t going anywhere soon (on this point, we agree with the commentary’s writers);

• Edison has presented no plan to replace aging or damaged canisters, much less a plan for how to transport them. That means they may never move and the current storage becomes permanent;

• Absent viable plans to repackage the waste and move it off-site to permanent storage, the release of radiation into the environment is inevitable; and

• Any amount of radiation in the environment is hazardous.

In calling for readers to “band together as a community and focus on the big picture,” the commentary authors identify consolidated interim storage as “clearly the best solution.”

Environmental groups won’t be joining that band. Dozens of environmental organizations, including The Sierra Club, are on record opposing consolidated interim storage.

If interim storage is best, why don’t the engagement panel officers demand construction of an on-site handling facility, or “hot cell,” at San Onofre where canisters can be replaced and have their contents repackaged?

In making their case for consolidated interim storage, the writers state without evidence that communities in Texas and New Mexico are lining up to open facilities and are “keen for the business.”

Not so fast.

In a July letter to President Donald Trump, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham rejected interim storage in her state.

“Given that a permanent repository for high-level waste does not exist in the United States and there is no existing plan to build one, any “interim” storage facility will be an indefinite storage facility, and the risks for New Mexicans, our natural resources and our economy are too high,” she wrote.

Across the southwestern United States, Native American communities are demanding an end to “nuclear colonialism” that includes uranium mining, transport of nuclear materials and nuclear waste dumping.

Back in Southern California, the Community Engagement Panel commentary issues a rallying cry: “We here in the communities around San Onofre must lead the way for a solution.”

Any hope of a solution must come from leaders that place the public interest — as opposed to that of a shareholder-owned utility – first.

Bart Ziegler, PhD, is president of the Samuel Lawrence Foundation.