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The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station will be almost entirely demolished by the end of the decade with the exception of its dry storage facilities containing spent nuclear fuel. Photo by Samantha Nelson
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station will be almost entirely demolished by the end of the decade with the exception of its dry storage facilities containing spent nuclear fuel. Photo by Samantha Nelson
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US Energy Department launches plan to relocate spent nuclear fuel

CAMP PENDLETON — The prospect of removing spent nuclear fuel stored at the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station came one step closer to being realized after the U.S. Department of Energy initiated a new plan to find temporary repositories while a permanent site is completed.

On June 9, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Congressman Mike Levin (D-CA) visited the former nuclear power plant, situated along the coast of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton between San Diego and Orange counties, to announce the federal government would be dedicating $26 million to find communities willing to accept a temporary federal site to store spent nuclear fuel.

Currently, the United States does not have a designated permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. For years, Yucca Mountain was considered as a potential site but faced pushback from Nevada residents unwilling to host the nuclear waste repository, thus creating a national stalemate.

SONGS, which began its decommissioning process about a decade ago, currently stores 123 canisters of spent nuclear fuel on-site.

As part of the plan, 13 groups will each receive $2 million to host discussions and explore possibilities for the best consent-based temporary storage site.

The consortia member include the American Nuclear Society, Arizona State University, Boise State University, Clemson University, Energy Communities Alliance, Good Energy Collective, Keystone Policy Center, Missouri University of Science and Technologies, North Carolina State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Southwest Research Institute, Vanderbilt University and Holtec International, the same company that provided one of the dry storage facilities at SONGS holding 73 canisters of spent fuel.

Southern California Edison, the utility that owns SONGS and is responsible for its decommissioning process, plans to demolish the plant’s above-grade structures, including the Unit 2 and Unit 3 reactors — the two huge domes visible from Interstate 5 — by the end of the decade.

Following the plant’s demolition, only two dry storage installations containing canisters of spent nuclear fuel will remain at the site until at least 2035 or whenever the federal government finds a permanent repository.

“Our decommissioning of SONGS is well under way, but we can’t get it completed and the site restored fully until we can send the spent fuel to a federally licensed, offsite facility,” said Steven Powell, SCE president and CEO, during a June 9 press conference at the plant.

Last year, Granholm accompanied Levin to announce the formation of an exploratory advisory committee in charge of developing a plan to move spent fuel from temporary storage sites to a permanent repository.

This year, Granholm said the Biden Administration is still committed to keeping nuclear power as part of its carbon-free energy options but recognizes that it must find a solution to safely storing the waste left behind.

“We believe strongly that consent-based siting is the way forward,” Granholm said.

Over the next 18 to 24 months, these members will meet regularly with communities nationwide. The next stage will then identify host sites, and the third stage will involve negotiating benefits for those selected communities.

“I’ve been in congress for five years, and for the first time, we finally have a plan when it comes to spent nuclear fuel across the United States,” Levin said. “It won’t happen overnight, it’s going to take time and multiple phases, but we now have a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to spent nuclear fuel that isn’t an oncoming train.”

Since taking office in 2018, Levin has been pushing Congress to find a solution to remove the spent fuel from his district’s coastline.

Early in his first term, Levin launched a task force of local stakeholders and experts to address the safety challenges at SONGS and find policy recommendations. He also formed the bipartisan Congressional Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus to address stranded nuclear waste nationwide.

Additionally, Levin and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) recently reintroduced their Spent Fuel Prioritization Act, which would prioritize the removal of spent nuclear fuel from decommissioned sites in areas near large populations with high seismic hazards like SONGS.