Will Southern California Become a Nuclear Waste Dump?
By: Roger Johnson, PhD, Professor Emeritus
San Clemente – As the Community Engagement Panel (CEP) plans for its next meeting (May 22, 6 PM at the Hills Hotel in Laguna Hills), many are reflecting over what happened at the last meeting on May 6. This was a workshop held in San Juan Capistrano to discuss the storage of San Onofre nuclear waste. When the plant was built, everyone was assured that nuclear waste would be moved elsewhere right about now. But it is beginning to look like highly radioactive nuclear waste may be here for many years to come.
San Onofre was never designed to be a waste storage facility. Everyone agrees that this is a dangerous location because of its vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis and the fact that it is located in the middle of two densely populated metropolitan areas. It is also a choice target for terrorists, and there is always the danger of human error. Add to this the danger of fire as evidence by the recent blazes at Camp Pendleton which came within a few miles of the plant.
The CEP is an Edison-appointed committee which has no power or jurisdiction and consists mostly of local officials. The 18 person committee has no cancer specialists and only one scientist (Prof. Parker from UCI). A number of experts were invited to speak at the May 6 meeting. Although the meeting was public, no one was allowed to speak or ask questions. CEP members Tim Brown (Mayor of San Clemente) and Sam Allevato (Mayor of San Juan Capistrano) did not attend.
The CEP speakers at the May 6 included Tom Palmisano (Southern California Edison), Drew Barto (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), Michael McMahon (vendor for a company that manufacturers storage casks for the nuclear industry), Prof. Per Peterson (Univ. of California, Berkeley), and Dr. Marvin Resnikoff (Physicist with Radioactive Waste Management Associates).
The United States passed The Nuclear Waste Policy Act back in 1982 with the hope of having a functioning permanent storage facility early in the 21st century. This never happened, and all attempts to build a deep underground geological repository have failed. The only national facility accepting high-level radioactive waste is in Carlsbad, New Mexico. This facility accepts only military nuclear waste, and it was recently closed because of fires, explosions, and radiation leaks. Since the U.S. now has no plan to dispose of nuclear waste, the current NRC plan for San Onofre is to keep radioactive waste on site for 60 years or until a national repository is opened. If a national repository is not opened by 2074, it would remain onsite for 200 more years or until some kind of solution is found.
The safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste is important because there is so much of it with no place to go. The Nuclear Energy Institute tells us that over the past four decades, the nuclear industry has produced 71,780 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. If used fuel assemblies were stacked end-to-end and side-by-side, this would cover a football field about seven yards deep. The industry continues to generate 2,000-2,300 metric tons of additional spent fuel each year even though there is no plan on how to dispose of it. The term “spent” or “used” fuel means only that it is no longer profitable. It does not mean that its radioactivity is “spent.” One of the main reasons why storing this waste is especially difficult is because the radioactivity will not decay to safe levels for hundreds of thousands (or millions) of years. Scientists say that there is now no known technology to prevent degradation and water penetration for such lengths of time.
In the last century, there was much enthusiasm for nuclear energy. Richard Nixon wanted to have 1,000 nuclear power plants operating by the year 2000. Plans were made to dot the state of California with nuclear power plants including one in Malibu and another in downtown San Francisco. Public protests emerged including one at San Onofre where 15,000 people gathered to protest the plant. (Where are all those people now?) The state of California (under Gov. Jerry Brown) finally wisely blocked the expansion of nuclear power in the state. A moratorium was passed in 1976 which prohibited the construction of any new nuclear power plants until there was solution to the problem of radioactive waste disposal. There was no solution in 1976, and there still is no solution in 2014.
Where is Gov. Brown today on this issue? Completely silent. Even worse is Congressman Darrel Issa. His District 49 is becoming a nuclear waste storage dump and he is totally unengaged. Those who have discussed the issue with his staff or with him personally say that he is completely uninformed. He is too busy grandstanding over Benghazi, far more important to him than serving the people in his district.
It is not only the waste problem, but also the three catastrophic accidents (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima) plus hundreds of smaller accidents which have eroded public confidence in nuclear power. Once touted by the industry as safe, clean, reliable, and inexpensive, the world found out that nuclear power is dangerous, unreliable, environmentally dirty, and extremely expensive. Japan has closed almost all of its nuclear reactors. Germany and Switzerland are phasing them out, and many other countries are reducing their commitment. Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko is quoted as saying, “In 20 or 30 years we’re going to have very few nuclear power plants in this country – that’s just a fact.”
Edison now has 18 dry storage casks holding waste from the now decommissioned Unit 1. It also has 33 casks now storing waste from Units 2 and 3. The plant has generated 1,726 irradiated fuel assemblies from Unit 2 and 1,734 from Unit 3. Of these, 792 are now in dry cask storage and the remaining 2,668 (77%) remain in cooling pools. Fuel stored in cooling pools is much more vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, explosions, human error, power failures, and terrorist attacks.
One problem is that the Edison ISFSI (Independent Spent Fuel Storage Facility) is too small and needs to be tripled in size from 80,000 sq. ft. to 240,000 sq. ft. It is located only a few hundred feet from I-5 on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Edison needs to add about 100 new dry storage casks to the 51 which are already there. This would make a huge concentration of nuclear waste in what is probably the worst possible location.
There are other safer alternatives, but none is being actively considered. Whether this is because of the desire to minimize cost (at the expense of public safety) or because of institutional rigidity is not known. It is certainly easier to do things the same way as they were done in the past even if this makes the situation worse. One big danger of expanding the present ISFSI pad is that it will cost a lot of money and make it more difficult for bureaucrats to have the waste moved elsewhere in the future. Why spend a lot of money on a facility and then spend more money demolishing it a few years down the road? Once built (as Edison is now planning to do), it will be very difficult to get the waste moved elsewhere.
Still another danger is that San Onofre might become an attractive nuclear storage dump for other nuclear power plants. It already has one big attraction necessary for a nuclear waste dump: a railroad line running right thought it which would make it easy to cart in nuclear waste from elsewhere.
A slightly safer location for a new ISFSF would be on the Edison-leased mesa above the plant. It would be out of sight, away from public access, out of tsunami range, and more difficult for terrorists to reach. Still another idea not being considered is storing all the dry casks inside the current containment domes. That would offer more protection from missiles, truck bombs, or high explosives, and any radiation leaks might be contained. An even better idea would be to construct the ISFSF deep into Camp Pendleton so that it would also be much further from populated cities and towns. Prevailing winds where the waste is stored now would likely carry any radiation over many coastal cities and towns. Farther inland, radiation would blow toward desert areas. Camp Pendleton has 600 miles of roads, and a more remote spot would be far safer than where it is now.
Would the Navy allow moving the waste? They own the land. Many think that it is in the Navy’s own self interest to get the nuclear waste away from the coast to another facility which is safer and more remote. Put it this way: the nuclear waste now at San Onofre has the radioactive equivalent of 2,000 nuclear weapons? Perhaps even the Navy doesn’t want it here?
How about another Navy property, the Chocolate Mountain gunnery range? This is far larger than Camp Pendleton. It is away from populated zones, safe and secure with no public access, of no interest to terrorists, and best of all it does not have the kind of seismic activity that sits under Camp Pendleton. It might even be cheaper to build an ISFSF plant there rather than in Orange and San Diego Counties.
One of the speakers at the May 6 meeting was Prof. Per Peterson, nuclear engineer from UC Berkeley. He was a member of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission which was charged with recommendations on what to do with nuclear waste. Prof. Peterson told the group that one of the commission recommendations was to build interim waste storage facilities since it may be a very long time before everyone in the country agrees on a permanent site (which could also take decades to build). Why keep radioactive waste for many decades in a seismically dangerous area near large population zones when temporary storage sites could be located in safer areas? Prof. Peterson also suggested that the California Energy Commission might be the place to start if there is any interest in moving nuclear waste away from Diablo Canyon and San Onofre.
San Onofre was never designed to be a radioactive waste site, and turning our coastal area into a nuclear waste dump is the worst of all possible alternatives. Nevertheless, that is the plan that the NRC has advocated. Edison is busy planning to carry this out. Unless the waste is moved elsewhere (preferably soon), we may be stuck with it for ages.
Another big issue that emerged at the meeting is the question of why 77% of the spent fuel remains in pools. Why has it not been transferred into safer dry cask storage? (Dry cask storage means sealing the waste in stainless steel containers which are then placed in concrete vaults.) It turns out that the main reason is because back in 1996 Edison switched (without public notice) to “high burnup” fuel which is more radioactive and burns hotter and is more profitable for the company. The problem is that this new type of fuel is so hot and so radioactive that it requires cooling in pools for 20 years rather than 5 years before it can be put in dry cask storage. Edison now has 1,115 high burnup fuel assemblies which are too hot to handle. They can’t be moved out of pools because they are still too hot. You can read more about t his at http://www.sanonofresafety.org/.
This issue was discussed in detail by Dr. Resnikoff, a physicist with many years of experience with nuclear waste. He cited research showing that it may not be safe to put this new type of fuel in dry cask storage at all. This is because the more intense radiation degrades the zirconium cladding around the fuel pellets. He stated that the storage of high burnup fuel is really a “field experiment” since the NRC does not yet know if it can be safely stored for long periods of time. The nuclear industry quietly switched to this more dangerous type of fuel long before they had a solution for how to store it safely. Dr. Resnikoff also cited evidence that the salt air can make it dangerous to store radioactive waste near the ocean for long periods of time.
What is happening now is essentially a repeat of the mistakes made by the nuclear industry in its rush to nuclear power. A half-century ago the industry started producing nuclear waste without any idea how to dispose of it. And in the last decade, Edison and others switched to the more dangerous high burnup fuel before they knew if it was safe to put in dry cask storage. They still don’t know. When this came up at the meeting, the vendor (AREVA) selling dry casks to Edison stated that they hoped to release a study this year about the safety of storing high burnup fuel in their casks. This means that Edison starting using the fuel 18 years ago, and just now they are studying whether it is safe.
The history of nuclear industry continues to be public talk about safety but in practice the industry quietly ops for profit and risk. Many joke about how the NRC adopted the logo “Protecting People and the Environment.” Translation: the nuclear industry considers safety as little more than a public relations issue. They want to manage public perception of risk rather than manage actual risk itself.
The agenda for the May 22 meeting will be dominated by Edison who will offer briefings and updates to inform the public on timetables with regard to decommissioning. The CEP has apparently decided to defer any discussion of alternative strategies for waste removal for 6-9 months. People are relieved that the plant is finally closed, but no one will feel safe as long as the nuclear waste remains in our backyard.