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San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
Currently, there are 123 sealed, stainless-steel canisters stored in large concrete structures on site at SONGS. File photo
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Edison releases plan for moving spent fuel, pushes for federal responsibility

REGION — In mid-March, Southern California Edison released its plans for the future offsite relocation of spent nuclear fuel currently stored at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

The utility company also formed a coalition of stakeholders including San Diego County to push the federal government to take responsibility for the spent nuclear fuel, though some critics say this is Edison’s attempt to shift its own responsibility for the spent fuel away.

The plans contained in a three-volume set of more than 150 pages include what Edison calls the Action Plan, the Strategic Plan and the Conceptual Transportation Plan.

The Action Plan was developed to display measures Edison and the SONGS plant co-owners, including the cities of Anaheim and Riverside, will take to push for offsite relocation of spent fuel as well as preparation for such a move.

The Strategic Plan then identifies and analyzes the pros and cons of several alternatives for spent fuel removal, such as moving the spent fuel to an interim storage facility before the final permanent repository that has yet to be determined.

The Conceptual Transportation Plan then focuses on the necessary preparation and associated costs that shipping the spent fuel from San Onofre to an offsite location will require.

Edison hired North Wind, Inc. in June 2019 to develop the plan along with the utility company and an “Experts Team.” Its release of the plans is a significant part of the process stemming from the 2017 settlement regarding the coastal development permit issued for expansion of the SONGS current spent fuel storage system.

Currently, there are 123 sealed, stainless-steel canisters stored in large concrete structures on site at SONGS. The Department of Energy was supposed to start transporting spent nuclear fuel from sites like SONGS across the country to a permanent repository in 1998, but such a site was never established and those plans were put on hold.

“The federal government needs to establish a new organizational framework with autonomy and reliable funding, support consolidated interim storage, start a new repository program, and invest in spent fuel transportation readiness,” said John Dobken, spokesperson for Edison.

Joseph Hezir of EJM Associates, who served as Chief Financial Officer and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Energy from 2013 to 2017, said the need for a consent-based permanent repository was one of the major focuses of the SONGS plans.

Along the way, the plan also focuses on the need for offsite, consolidated interim storage as a necessary step along the way to permanent storage.

During the March 18 SONGS Community Engagement Panel, Hezir explained that transferring the spent nuclear fuel to an offsite consolidated interim storage facility would likely clear the SONGS site decades earlier than any form of a permanent repository program, which will help the plant align more with its current decommissioning plan and schedule.

“That’s not to say we don’t need a permanent repository, but moving the spent nuclear fuel to an offsite interim site is likely to move the fuel much quicker,” Hezir said.

The plan considered several options of consolidated interim storage, including using private facilities as well as federal, regional, multi-utility and SONGS-only facilities. Two non-federal options are currently being considered for Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses, one in New Mexico and the other in Texas.

The consolidated interim storage sites in New Mexico and Texas could potentially receive licenses as early as this year, but a change in government opinion has shifted against the facilities, creating uncertainty about using those potential sites.

Congress recently appropriated $20 million to begin work on potential federal consolidated interim storage facilities through a consent-based process. Though this is promising, Hezir noted such a process could take at least 10 or more years to find a site, acquire licenses and construct, then likely another 10 or more years to complete transfer of the spent fuel from SONGS to the site.

Hezir then suggested a hybrid solution could be the “best way to marry” the work done already on the private facilities with bringing in the federal government for costs and title transfer of liability for the fuel from Edison.

He added that a consent-based process, though it takes longer, gets everyone to a “place of greater certainty” regarding the transfer of spent fuel.

In February, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm confirmed the Biden administration’s opposition to Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository and suggested that “consensus-based strategies” are needed to determine a location.

In addition to the plans, Edison also formed a coalition called Action for Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Now to help push the federal government to begin work on a permanent repository. The coalition is intended to advocate for additional federal legislation, funding and policies to advance both permanent disposal as well as offsite interim storage.

Groups like the Samuel Lawrence Foundation are opposed to the concept of consolidated interim storage.

“Edison is forcing the idea of consolidated interim storage and moving radioactive waste twice,” said Bart Ziegler, associate director for the Samuel Lawrence Foundation. “Fifty-six groups across the country oppose consolidated interim storage, as do the Governors of New Mexico and Texas.”

Rather than putting money towards interim storage, Ziegler said Edison should put all of its energy and resources towards finding a permanent repository. He added that the country needs a consent-based permanent repository for high-level radioactive waste.

The Samuel Lawrence Foundation believes the coalition is a cover for its “controversial storage plans” regarding consolidated interim storage and a distraction for a current lawsuit challenging its decommissioning program.

“The utility refuses to take steps to safeguard the radioactive material by keeping spent fuel pools operational after decommissioning or by constructing a handling facility to repackage the waste should the canisters be damaged,” states a letter signed by Ziegler as well as members of regional environmental groups and indigenous leaders.

In response, Dobken said Edison supports a consent-based approach for constructing a federal interim storage facility “in a willing community” while the permanent repository is licensed and constructed.

“This is the most expedient way to relocate the spent nuclear fuel at SONGS, allowing for the full decommissioning and restoration of the site, and return of the land to the Navy,” Dobken said via email. “We encourage members of the community to read our plans and lend their voices to the coalition. Only together can we solve this long-standing issue.”