By Rob Nikolewski | Contact Reporter
June 17, 2017 | 6:00 AM
Is there a chance that the tons of nuclear waste at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) could finally get moved to another location?
Prompted by a lawsuit filed by an advocacy group, confidential negotiations are under way that may be exploring just that possibility.
The plant’s majority owner, Southern California Edison, is meeting with representatives of East County-based Citizens Oversight after the two sides asked the judge presiding over the case to give them time to work out a potential settlement. According to the stipulation, the two sides must report back to the judge by July 14.
Neither side is talking to reporters but the discussions provide an opportune time to review the details of how and why so much spent fuel ended up within sight of the Pacific Ocean in the first place and when and where it could be shipped.
How much nuclear waste is at the plant?
SONGS officials say there are 1,609 metric tons, which equals 3.55 million pounds.
Is that a lot?
It represents about 2 percent of the total amount of the spent fuel from all of the nation’s nuclear power plants, according to the most recent figures from the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group.
SONGS accounts for about half the amount of nuclear waste that has accumulated at plants in California.
The plant is operated by Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric has a 20 percent stake in the project.
What exactly is spent fuel?
Inside a nuclear reactor, enriched uranium sustains a series of controlled nuclear reactions that unleash quantities of energy that is converted to steam that drives turbines that generate electricity.
After about four to six years, nuclear fuel loses its efficiency and is considered “spent.”
But the spent fuel is still thermally hot and emits a great deal of radiation — enough to kill someone within minutes if that person is not adequately shielded — and remains radioactive for thousands of years because of the long half-lives of some of its radio-isotopes.
To keep the fuel cool, nuclear plant operators transfer the waste to what is called “wet storage,” where it is placed in a metal rack in a deep pool of water, typically for at least five years.
After the fuel has been cooled it may be transferred to a dry storage system.
SONGS hasn’t produced electricity since January 2012 and there are 8.4 million people within a 50-mile radius of the plant. So why does its spent fuel stay on site?
Because, to put it bluntly, the federal government has dropped the ball. Under the Waste Policy Act, passed by Congress in 1982, the U.S. Department of Energy was given responsibility for the long-term storage of nuclear waste.
In order to pay for the transfer of waste from various sites across the country, a Nuclear Waste Fund was established. Ratepayers from areas powered by nuclear plants paid fees of about 15 to 20 cents per month on their utility bills. The money built up over the years and is now worth at least $35.8 billion.
The government had promised to start accepting spent fuel in 1998 but the feds failed to come up with a permanent site to put the nation’s waste. As a result, a 2014 court ruling ordered DOE to stop collecting the fees from electricity customers.
As for the waste at SONGS, the California Coastal Commission in October 2015 approved a 20-year permit for Edison to expand a storage system that will eventually see all the plant’s waste stored in heavy, dry casks.
Why not send spent fuel to Yucca Mountain?
That was the original plan.
The government spent anywhere between $9 billion and $15 billion to build the repository that would store the fuel deep underground in the Nevada desert, about 100 miles from Las Vegas.
From the moment Yucca Mountain was first discussed on Capitol Hill back in the 1980s, lawmakers in Nevada fought against it. Nonetheless, the Department of Energy recommended opening Yucca and in 2002 the site was approved by then-President George W. Bush.
But the Obama administration cut funding for Yucca Mountain, delighting Nevada’s Harry Reid, who became the Senate Majority Leader after the 2008 elections.
Now, however, there are indications that Yucca is back on the table.
The Trump administration has called for spending $120 million on storage projects that include reviving Yucca Mountain.
On April 27, the IHS Energy Daily, a trade publication, reported that a longtime contractor at Yucca sent out a memo saying the contractor anticipates having to supply 350 engineers for a potential re-start of the site.
But resurrecting Yucca Mountain figures to be a time-consuming process.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, has put together a draft bill in the U.S. House of Representatives aimed at clearing the way to bring Yucca back.
But after taking a tour of SONGS earlier this year, when reporters asked Shimkus how long people will have to wait before spent fuel gets shipped out of San Onofre, he said, “Just say a long time — a lot longer than you really hope, I'll be honest with you.”
If Yucca Mountain came back online, is it big enough to handle all the nation’s nuclear waste?
Yes and no.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the repository was designed to hold 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste with 63,000 metric tons reserved for commercial waste. The total amount of waste from nuclear plants across the country has reached 78,590 and the industry adds about 2,200 tons each year. So in that respect, Yucca by itself would not be big enough to house all the nation’s spent fuel.
But the Nuclear Energy Institute says the 70,000-ton limit is not a design constraint but a restriction that was legislatively imposed. Originally, Congress envisioned the construction of not one (Yucca Mountain) but two national repositories and wanted to make sure the nation’s nuclear waste would be equitably distributed between them.
NEI officials say Yucca Mountain could “safely accommodate four to nine times” the 70,000 figure.
Aren’t there other places where it can be sent?
Under what is called “consolidated interim storage,” sites would be built in relatively isolated locations — provided they have consent from local communities — where multiple nuclear plants could send their waste.
Two sites have been discussed.
One is in a sparsely populated area in West Texas, operated by a company called Waste Control Specialists. The facility stores low-level radioactive waste and the company wants to dramatically expand the site, which has a 14,000-acre footprint.
But two months ago the company in charge of the project put its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on hold due to financial problems.
Waste Control Specialists executives had earlier discussed constructing the facility by 2019 but suspending the NRC’s review of the application will almost certainly delay the project, if it ever gets built.
The other possible site is in eastern New Mexico and it would be a big one — proposed to hold about 120,000 metric tons of waste. Representatives of the project appeared at the most recent San Onofre engagement panel and said the plan has the support of local governments.
“One person’s waste is another person’s most valuable possession,” said John Heaton, chairman of the New Mexico group, called the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance.
The contingent said if the project is approved, it could go online in as soon as five years — a quick turnaround when it comes to the slow pace associated with the bureaucracy and construction time associated with nuclear projects.
There’s a third site on the radar screen as well.
Former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre has lobbied for moving SONGS waste to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, located about 50 miles from Phoenix.
Aguirre says it’s a logical place because SONGS operator, Southern California Edison, is a part-owner at Palo Verde, with a 15.8 percent stake.
But last summer, a public affairs officer at the NRC told the Union-Tribune the Arizona facility uses a different storage design than SONGS and an evaluation would need to be made to see if that can be resolved.
Aguirre is the lead attorney for Citizens Oversight in the group’s legal fight challenging the controversial 2015 ruling by the Coastal Commission.
Who does the waste belong to — the federal government or Southern California Edison?
The spent fuel is the responsibility of Southern California Edison but according to the details of the Waste Policy Act, the waste eventually will be handed over to the U.S. Department of Energy. The agency takes title at the gate when the fuel leaves the site and owns it from that point on.
Do other nuclear power plants store their waste on-site like SONGS does?
Yes, since the federal government has not come up with a site to deposit spent fuel.
Does SONGS have the most spent fuel on site of any other plant in the country?
Not the most, but it’s in the top 10.
Every three years the U.S. government issues a report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on radioactive waste management. In its most recent report in September 2014, the government listed the inventory of spent fuel at each of 74 sites across the country.
According to from the report, San Onofre had 1,656 metric tons of spent fuel, which would place it in seventh place:
Let’s say the federal government magically found a place to deposit nuclear waste. Would SONGS waste be the first on the list?
That’s a good question. There appears to be a lack of clarity when it comes to determining which spent fuel from which site goes to the front of the line.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has what is called an “Acceptance Priority Ranking” that essentially gives the nod to the oldest fuel that has been discharged from a particular location. It’s called the “oldest fuel first” principle.
But David Victor, the chairman of the Community Engagement Panel at SONGS said in an email that “there is no hard and fast rule — in fact, no clear rules on ordering of shipments.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute said there’s a provision in DOE’s contracts with reactor owners that allows the department — if it chooses — to ignore the priority ranking to expedite removal of fuel from plants that are shut down.
SONGS is one of 14 sites in shutdown mode.
Given that SONGS has a relatively large amount of spent fuel hugging the Pacific Ocean and is located in such a densely-populated area with a history of seismic activity, locals insist SONGS waste should get priority.
“Stranded fuel that is near people and environmental hazards must have the priority for being moved,” said Marni Magda, the Sierra Club representative on the SONGS Community Engagement Panel.
The Union-Tribune emailed DOE’s public affairs officer twice, requesting a brief interview about the “oldest fuel first” policy but was told there were no officials available.
Where, exactly, is the spent fuel at SONGS?
At San Onofre, the rods in wet storage are placed in a concrete structure 40 feet deep that is lined with steel and filled with water.
Edison plans to take the fuel assemblies currently in wet storage and move them into 73 dry storage canisters. The transfer process has not yet started but is scheduled to be completed by 2019.
There are already 50 canisters of spent fuel that are stored on site — 33 contain waste from Units 2 and 3 and 17 canisters store spent fuel from Unit 1.
The nuclear industry loves long, awkward acronyms and the 50 canisters of used fuel sit horizontally on a site called an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI).
The ISFSI site sits atop portions of what used to be Unit 1. The 73 canisters that Edison plans to transfer from wet to dry storage will go into vertical casks on a site now under construction, just in front of the ISFSI location, behind a seawall 27 feet high.
Construction is underway at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station for a storage site that will house spent nuclear fuel canisters in 2019. In the foreground is the storage site for 50 canisters that have already been placed on site. Photo from May 9, 2017. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)Activists have long warned of the casks leaking, and have worried SONGS is vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, a Fukushima-type tsunami or a terrorist strike but Edison officials insist the site is safe.
If it could be moved immediately, can it?
Some of the waste at SONGS could be shipped out tomorrow, theoretically. But a lot of it will have to wait.
Edison officials say about half of the 33 canisters from Units 2 and 3 can be shipped out today and all of them will be cleared and licensed by the NRC to move by 2020.
Of the 73 canisters scheduled to get transferred from wet storage to dry casks, Edison estimates that 68 of the 73 canisters would be ready to be moved as early as 2020. Of the remaining five, two will be eligible in 2022, two in 2023 and one in 2028.
The 17 canisters of Unit 1 waste have to sit longer, though.
Unit 1 shut down in 1992 and Edison officials say the reactor’s fuel rods were made of stainless steel, the technology of the time. The fuel needs to cool for 38 years before transportation. The fuel pellets sit inside the stainless steel rods.
Two canisters of Unit 1 waste will be eligible to be transported in 2018 and the remainder will be ready through 2030.
If a site existed, how would SONGS waste be moved?
Most likely, by rail. When loaded, the casks at San Onofre weigh up to 50 tons and the Nuclear Energy Institute said they may be too big to fit on trucks.
Who would move the spent fuel?
The Department of Energy would be responsible for transport and would most likely contract with a private firm with experience in moving nuclear waste. Last year, the president of an international company that specializes in nuclear transportation delivered a presentation at a SONGS community panel.
“I can move that stuff,” said Jack Edlow, the president of Edlow International. “It’s not that difficult.”
Will there come a day when there will be no trace of the nuclear plant at San Onofre?
Edison officials have set a target date of end of 2032 to remove nearly every remnant of the plant. The property would then return to the U.S. Navy, which owns the land.
(619) 293-1251 Twitter: @robnikolewski
Copyright © 2017, The San Diego Union-Tribune
- U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- San Onofre Nuclear Plant
- John Shimkus
- International Atomic Energy Agency