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San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
According to Samuel Lawrence Foundation, nuclear waste stored at San Onofre poses an environmental threat to the region. File photo
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Environmental advocacy group files lawsuit to stop SONGS demolition

REGION — The Samuel Lawrence Foundation, a Del Mar-based environmental advocacy group, is suing the California Coastal Commission to overturn the agency’s approval of the demolition of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

The nonprofit group has been challenging San Onofre and its owner, Southern California Edison, for some time. According to the group, nuclear waste stored at San Onofre poses an environmental threat to the region and the nearly 8.6 million people that live within 50 miles of the plant.

San Onofre, which sits between the coast and Interstate 5 on Camp Pendleton’s base, is currently undergoing its decommissioning process. The nuclear plant operated from 1968 to 2013, and in 2019 the California Coastal Commission approved demolition of the plant, which will take about a decade to complete.

The foundation’s lawsuit against the state commission, filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, is seeking an injunction that will halt further decommissioning of the plant. Also named in the lawsuit is Southern California Edison.

Samuel Lawrence Foundation opposed the commission’s decision to approve the permit that allows for the demolition of the plant. In a 2019 letter addressed to the California Coastal Commission, the foundation states that the permit is risky because of the “lack of transportability, lack of inspection, lack of maintenance and lack of monitoring of storage containment.”

The group also told the commission that Edison should not be allowed to destroy the plant until its spent fuel storage installations meet the conditions they need to be transported from the facility, claiming that the canisters of spent fuel are severely damaged from the downloading process into storage.

Currently, the plan is to demolish the plant’s above-grade structures, including its Unit 2 and 3 reactors. That would leave the ISFSI (independent spent fuel storage installation) in place on-site until at least 2035 or whenever the federal government determines a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel, which has yet to happen.

In the lawsuit, the group accuses the commission of approving the permit “unsupported by evidence” and for violating its own code as well as the Coastal Act. The Foundation also states that approval of the permit to demolish the plant ignores seismic and tsunami risks.

Additionally, Samuel Lawrence Foundation argues that the spent fuel storage facility is doomed to fail at its location 100 feet from the ocean as sea levels continue to rise and that the canisters are too thin and will be vulnerable to corrosion from seawater and groundwater.

“Coastal commissioners should have required planning for the replacement of damaged spent fuel canisters,” said Bart Ziegler, president of Samuel Lawrence Foundation. “Without the spent fuel pool, there is no current structure to do that.”

According to Edison spokesperson John Dobken, the utility company has reviewed the foundation’s petition and “continues to believe that the California Coastal Commission was thorough in its analysis and correct in its decision to approve the coastal development permit to safely dismantle the San Onofre nuclear plant.”

Also in a letter addressed to the California Coastal Commission in 2019, Edison challenged the group’s assertions that the canisters were too damaged to function. Though the company acknowledges that the canisters are likely to bump into the narrow opening of the storage vaults, the company had performed “comprehensive inspections and analyses” that were reviewed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which determined that the canisters did not have significant wear marks or scratches affecting their functionality or safety.

Edison has an inspection and maintenance program, also approved by the California Coastal Commission, that evaluates the spent fuel canisters for aging and degradation over time.

“We believe that we have a shared interest with the local communities to move forward with dismantling the plant in a safe and timely manner and restoring the SONGS site for return to the U.S. Navy,” Dobken said via email.

A trial in Los Angeles County is expected in June.