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San Onofre Nuclear Waste Storage Requires Difficult Decisions

Let’s talk about difficult decisions: our parents and grandparents left us a thorny problem. The waste left behind at the San Onofre nuclear power plant, from the process of making nuclear energy, is toxic to human beings for 250,000 years.

How do we keep that toxic waste from poisoning and killing us in the future… 250,000 years into the future? Our ancestors did us a colossally nasty turn by failing to acknowledge the consequences of that nuclear waste.

Regardless, that’s our reality today.

Over the past 50 years Americans have harvested enormous amounts of energy from nuclear reactors, which has left a lot of toxic nuclear waste scattered at more than 100 nuclear power plant sites around the United States, including the San Onofre Nuclear power plant right here in Southern California, just six miles from Dana Point.

San Onofre Nuclear Waste Dump photo
Area outlined in red is where the toxic fuel is being buried in the sand, next to the beach.

There are eight million humans living within a 50-mile radius of the San Onofre site, and if the deadly radioactive waste were to break from its containment, it would be a disaster of biblical proportions.

The San Onofre nuclear power plan was forced to shut down five years ago after equipment broke, irreparably, leaking radiation into the atmosphere. As a result, the site is no longer a nuclear power plant, but rather a nuclear waste dump. It no longer adds to the public good — and it never will again. It is a deadly liability left to us and our prodigy to manage.

Ours is the first generation of hundreds to face that problem, and it is a pressing problem.

The nuclear waste that came out of the reactors at the San Onofre nuclear plant over the past few decades generates heat and can become very hot if not cooled adequately. When nuclear fuel leaves a reactor after generating energy, it must be cooled in water for usually about five years before it is safe to transfer to any other storage method. After that, it may be stored in a dry container, if the container is designed to allow for sufficient natural cooling.

If the materials don’t stay cool enough, the heat from the fuel can cause the metal rods holding the fuel to fail, and in addition, the fuel can partially melt. If the metal rods break and the fuel starts to melt, this can lead to toxic and radioactive substances being released. In one possibility, hydrogen gas can be released that can burn or have small explosions when combined with the oxygen in the air (like natural gas or propane would).

Today, there are tons of toxic nuclear waste sitting in cooling pools of water at the San Onofre nuclear site.

A Difficult Decision

Which is safer: leaving the toxic waste in pools of water, or putting it into metal cans filled with helium gas?

Neither approach, obviously, is safe — but which is safer?

Because the federal government has failed for over 50 years to live up to its promise to provide a centralized place to store the waste, the San Onofre site is forced to store — on location —all the toxic nuclear waste it has accumulated over its 40+ years of operation. The facility was not sited, engineered or built for the purpose of storing the toxic waste.

Just 50 years into the 250,000-year endeavor, it is a national, bureaucratic, intractable mess.

Don’t sweat it, though. The decision has been made for you.

The Decision Has Been Made

The energy company that runs the San Onofre waste dump, Southern California Edison (SCE-E and EIX), has decided that metal cans buried in concrete holes are safer than pools of water.

Southern California Edison is busy filling specially built thin metal cans with the toxic waste and gas, then welding them shut. The cans are then being planted on site into the ground 100 feet from the ocean’s edge and barely three feet above the water table. The entire facility, now an unplanned nuclear waste dump, sits on a tiny sliver of land bounded on one side by one of the country’s most-traveled highways and on the other side by the Pacific ocean and the historic surfing breaks of the world-famous San Onofre beach. It also sits in a highly active earthquake zone and is vulnerable to tsunamis.

If that sounds even a little fool-hardy to you, remember that the alternative is extremely risky as well: leaving the toxic fuel in cooling pools, exposed to the atmosphere, vulnerable to daily worker accidents, natural degeneration, evaporation, corrosion, as well as malicious attack from the air.

A Chain Reaction of Questions

The decision to remove the waste from the water pools triggered a series of specific decisions about how to do that, not the least of which was to choose which type of containers to hold the waste. The nuclear industry calls these “dry cask storage” devices.

The obvious questions include:

  • Which containers should be used?
  • Where should the containers be stored once filled with nuclear waste?
  • Can those containers be transported away from the San Onofre site in the future to a safer storage location?
  • How long will the containers last?
  • Can containers be replaced if they begin to fail, before radiation leaks out?
  • Can the containers be monitored for leaks or any other problems that could threaten safety?

Answers to San Onofre Nuclear Questions


Which containers should be used?

With several proven types of dry casks available on the international market, Southern California Edison made the decision to purchase a thin-walled type of container for the San Onofre nuclear site. Unlike the widely used versions with cask walls 18 inches thick, the cans selected have thin metal walls less than 1-inch thick. Some argue there are multiple design flaws in the metal cans compared to thick casks.

Graphic by SanOnofreSafety.org
Source: https://sanonofresafety.org/

Where should the containers be stored once filled with nuclear waste?

Since the Federal government has failed to keep their promise of 50 years ago to take away the waste, all the toxic spent fuel must be kept on the site of the San Onofre nuclear facility. Southern California Edison decided to bury it all in a corner of the site, near the cliffs and ocean.

San Onofre Nuclear Waste Dump photo
Source: Google Maps

Can those containers be transported away from the San Onofre site in the future to a safer storage location?

Yes, but only if it can be proven that the cans and the fuel inside are not damaged or weak. Cracked cans cannot be safely transported. There is no known method to inspect for internal cracks or the condition of the fuel prior to shipment. The result? No, they cannot be safely transported.

San Onofre nuclear spent fuel storage photo
Dry storage can being lowered into concrete hole at San Onofre beach

How long will the containers last?

Experts disagree on this topic; however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission only licenses containers like these for an initial 20-years. The warranty for manufacturing defects is 25 years for the canisters and 10 years for the concrete base. Since the spent fuel will remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years, this leaves the obvious next question: how do we replace these dry casks before they fail?

Can containers be replaced if they begin to fail, before radiation leaks out?

They cannot be replaced. While smart and well-meaning engineers have conjured theoretical methods, it has never been done. No facilities exist at San Onofre to perform such a task. The Chief Nuclear Officer of the San Onofre plant, Thomas J. Palmisano, has expressed concern over whether it would be possible to purge a container of its helium gas and replace that gas with water.

“The biggest technical issue we’ve looked at over the years is the thermal transient to actually reintroduce water into a canister with hot fuel (200-300 degrees centigrade), and the thermal transient that you put the fuel through. […] The real challenge as we would understand it today, and nobody has had to do it yet, is the reflood.
Source: Thomas J. Palmisano

Once the waste is removed from the pools of water and placed in cans, Southern California Edison plans to demolish and remove the cooling pools. When the time comes to fix or replace a canister, there will be no safe place to extract the fuel from the cans.

Can the containers be monitored for leaks or any other problems that could threaten safety?

No. The interior of the can cannot be inspected. The exteriors can be examined for signs of stress or other issues, but only a small portion of the cans are scheduled for inspection.

Conclusion

We have a difficult decision on our hands because of problems carelessly left to us by earlier generations. Is the toxic nuclear spent fuel at the San Onofre site safer in pools of water or in containers?

There is no clear good answer to that question. As the saying goes, We just have to pick our poison. Two terrible options sit in front of us. This is an acknowledged problem across the country as each of the 100 or so nuclear power plants in the US ages out of its ability to safely operate.

How can you get involved?

Southern California Edison has an on-going commission to inform the public about the process of deconstructing the San Onofre facility (the process is called “decommissioning”) called the Community Engagement Panel (CEP) which holds public meetings quarterly. Anyone can attend and speak at these meetings. Click here for more information: https://www.songscommunity.com/

There are also several environmental groups involved in advocating for safe and transparent management of the radioactive materials during the demolition of the plant and to work on the long-term problems of toxic fuel storage.

SanOnofreSafety.org provides deep technical research, overviews and handouts.



SanOnofre.com looks at a variety of issues and advocates for sensible solutions that involve local residents and strong science.



SanOnofreHealth.org — take a short online survey to report potential health issues correlated to living near the San Onofre nuclear plant over the past 40 years.



San Clemente Green provides whistle-blower protection, advocates at public meetings, and collaborates with a range of groups in the country.



Public Watchdogs has taken legal action and done investigative exposés on the San Onofre facility and many other issues in California.



Residents Organized for a Safe Environment (ROSE) collaborates with international organizations and experts to promote ethically sound environmental decisions.



Photo by Jake Howard, STAB Magazine

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About the Author

Ross Teasley

A long-time Dana Pointer, technologist and publisher, I have been involved in several initiatives around Dana Point over the years ranging from environmental issues to civic planning. Fueled by coffee.

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