Nuclear waste from the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California will be moved to long-term storage beside the Pacific Ocean, the state’s Coastal Commission voted unanimously yesterday.
Commissioners said they lacked any viable alternative to granting plant owner Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) a permit to build a new storage facility. The Department of Energy has not approved a location to take spent fuel, they noted, and there are no short-term prospects for one.
An existing storage site at San Onofre lacks the space to take on remaining spent fuel from two generators that were stopped in January 2012, after a leak was found. SCE argued that moving the waste to dry storage was safer than leaving it in the decommissioned plant, and some commissioners said they agreed.
"The worst scenario is to leave this material in the spent fuel pool. I think that’s the worst of all of the alternatives that are out there," Commissioner Greg Cox said. "I wish there were other options that we had available now, but frankly, I don’t see them."
The decision outraged local residents at the meeting, some of whom began shouting as the vote for passage appeared imminent. Activists decried it as dangerous to "entomb" what they called 3.6 million pounds of radioactive waste at the site. Giving SCE approval to move it to dry storage likely means it will never be moved from there, said Ray Lutz, national coordinator for Citizens’ Oversight.
"The public does not expect for a nuclear waste dump to exist at this site," Lutz told the commission. He had urged the agency to delay and get more information, saying, "We’re going to put radioactive waste on the coast with only a few months of reviews and it’s going to be there for a million years? Please."
About 8.4 million people live in the area around San Onofre, he noted.
"So if terrorists wanted to attack the San Onofre site, they would detonate a conventional weapon and you would have a dirty bomb," Lutz said. "We would have to evacuate all of Southern California."
The new spent fuel storage facility will sit about 100 feet inland of a sea wall at the San Onofre site, located along about a mile of coastline in north San Diego County. A cement container holding casks will fill about 32,000 square feet. The total project including a security perimeter will comprise 100,000 square feet. It will be encased in a berm.
Selecting that location takes into account post-9/11 thinking that seeks to get nuclear waste below grade, to make it less susceptible to terrorism, said Tom Palmisano, vice president of decommissioning and chief nuclear officer at San Onofre.
Residents raised questions about whether the location near the beach could withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and sea-level rise in the years ahead.
Commission staff at the start of the session on San Onofre warned that the agency had limited authority. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees the safety of equipment used to store radioactive waste, said Alison Dettmer, deputy director of the Coastal Commission’s energy and ocean resources division. The state panel can only act to protect the coastline environment and access to the beaches.
"The bottom line is our hands are tied here, we know that," said Commissioner Roberto Uranga.
The commission also planned to send a letter to DOE urging it to act promptly in finding a place to put nuclear waste. San Diego’s Board of Supervisors already has sent a similar letter, Cox said.
Too heavy to move?
The commission’s decision comes about two years after SCE opted to close San Onofre. The generators had not been running since January of 2012, when the leak was found in Unit 3. Unit 2 was down for maintenance at the time and wasn’t restarted. An investigation found heavy tube wear and blamed that on a faulty computer program and poor steam quality that had triggered vibrations.
Under the permit approved yesterday, SCE would start construction of the independent spent fuel storage installation, or ISFSI, next year. Loading of the spent fuel would be completed by 2019.
The permit was limited to 20 years, and SCE will have to return before then and provide information about the condition of the casks and the plan to inspect them to ensure they could be moved if that became possible. SCE at the meeting agreed to come back in 2022 with some of that information.
The utility’s plan said that if DOE moved the fuel by 2049, the site could be restored by 2051.
There are two possible options for relocating the waste in decades ahead, a commission staff report said. Both are proposals to develop private facilities. One would be at the site of an existing low-level waste storage site in Andrews County, Texas. Another company wants to open an underground interim storage facility in southeastern New Mexico, it said.
But the staff report added that "it remains uncertain whether it will be possible for SCE to remove the ISFSI as planned, in 2051." If the facility had to remain in place for decades or longer, it "would eventually be exposed to coastal flooding and erosion hazards beyond its design capacity, or else would require protection by replacing or expanding the existing [plant] shoreline armoring."
Either would have the potential to harm "marine and visual resources and coastal access," the report said. Staff said that was the reason for adding the condition limiting the permit to 20 years. If the ISFSI needed to stay on site at that point, one possible option would be to move it inside units 2 and 3, which would be decommissioned by then, it said.
Many people who had submitted written comments and who spoke at the meeting expressed concerns about the integrity of the storage option SCE chose. It picked Holtec International’s UMAX system, which will have 50 canisters composed of five-eighths-inch-thick stainless steel. Those will be covered by concrete.
Donna Gilmore, who lives 5 miles from San Onofre, said that in Germany and Japan they use "thick cast" technology. She held up a large block and said that was what was in use in Fukushima, Japan, and that the plant’s dry storage withstood the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The thick casks meet NRC requirements for a coastal area, Gilmore said. "They won’t crack," she said. "You can inspect them. You can repair them."
The thinner canisters are a relatively newer model, though based on elements that are proven, SCE’s Palmisano said. Mark Lombard, NRC’s director of spent fuel storage and transportation, said NRC has confidence in the UMAX choice.
Activists also questioned whether the casks, once filled, would be able to be moved in the future. Lutz said they would be so heavy, at about 450,000 pounds, that they could not be put on a train.
Lombard said the casks would have to be moved on a special-purpose train. The Department of Energy is currently accepting bids on a project to designs cars to move nuclear waste, he said.
The agreement SCE made to return in 2022 came after several public speakers said there are no means right now of inspecting the UMAX casks for cracks or other problems. They noted that the language in the proposed permit for SCE only required the utility in 20 years to show that the casks were intact and could be moved. They’d also in two decades need to describe a maintenance and inspection program that would ensure that the casks remained transportable.
Commissioner Mary Shallenberger asked commission staff why, if the agency could seek that inspection data in 20 years, it couldn’t ask for it now. Chris Pederson, commission counsel, reiterated that the commission lacked authority over radiological safety issues. The condition on future review was put in to address that there might be a geologically safer place for the casks, which the agency had authority over, he said.
Shallenberger then queried Lombard, who explained that robotic technology is the future of inspections. Currently robots can get to the casks but are not yet at the level NRC wants for identifying the depth of a crack. The technology is improving quickly, however, he said. SCE’s Palmisano then said the utility expects to have the better robotic technology in place by 2022.
Commissioner Uranga said he thought the casks should be looked at within five to 10 years. He asked whether the utility would agree to provide inspection information by 2022, and Palmisano agreed. The commission could amend the permit if needed at that time, based on what it learned.
SCE owns 75 percent of San Onofre, while San Diego Gas & Electric Co. has 20 percent, and the cities of Anaheim and Riverside smaller portions.