Nuclear Safety Issues

The Issue

Southern California Edison is storing 3.6 million pounds of high-level radioactive waste material at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The utility is moving the radioactive material from cooling ponds into thin-walled steel canisters which will be entombed in a concrete bunker two feet above the water table and only 108 feet from the ocean.  

It gets worse: the nuclear storage is located on seismic fault lines, in a tsunami zone, and with rising sea levels to inundate the storage vault. This storage is largely unprotected and vulnerable to terrorist strikes. 

If the system fails then our environment, our economy, and health and safety could be imperiled. That would affect 8.4 million people in Southern California who live within a 50 mile radius.

The nuclear power plant at San Onofre operated at its oceanfront location in northernmost San Diego County from 1968 to 2013 until closing because of repeated equipment failures. The plant’s twin dome reactors remain as landmarks from Interstate 5 and the coastal railway. Located just south of Orange County, the storage at the plant is only 46 miles south of Long Beach and 50 miles north of downtown San Diego. 

Potential Impact: A Waste Storage Accident Could Cost $13.4 Trillion

In early 2019 SLF released two expert reports on the potential economic impacts and the technical problems of the San Onofre nuclear waste storage.

A collaboration of physicists, former military personnel, and engineers with considerable nuclear experience issued the reports. A potential impact of a nuclear waste accident at San Onofre could exceed $13.4 trillion.

 T. English, PhD, S.Chakraborty PhD, Len Hering Sr. RADM USN

R. McCann PhD, E. Stryjewski PhD

NRC and Edison Mismanagement of Nuclear Waste Storage

In May 2019 technical experts and community advocates held a congressional briefing in Washington, DC entitled, “Decommissioning: A New Era in the U.S. Nuclear Power Industry; a Critical Need for Congressional Oversight”.  They shared insights, concerns, and solutions for improving the nation’s current precarious nuclear safety system in the United States.

Participants included Greg Jaczko, PhD, former chair of the U.S. NRC; Rear Admiral Len Hering, Sr. USN (Ret.); and others.

Containment Challenges

January 2, 2019: This KPBS TV interview describes the problems with the storage of spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station site using thin-walled canisters.

Nuclear waste continues to accumulate across the nation with no permanent repository on the horizon. However, interim storage with the Holtec system used by Edison at San Onofre is unacceptable.

The current thin-wall steel canister design is welded shut, and it cannot be inspected, monitored, nor repaired. The metal canisters are prone to corrosion and cracking, particularly with the corrosive marine layer, rising seas, earthquakes, or an explosion. If damage were to occur, moving them to a permanent disposal site would become impossible.

In August 2018, a whistleblower reported that a fully-loaded canister came within a quarter-inch of falling 18 feet. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) investigated Edison mismanagement and the Holtec canister system. Regulators have since ordered a halt to the loading of Edison’s spent nuclear waste into the seaside storage vault.

SLF supports a fully independent and transparent review. A current pursuit is to gather quantitative research about nuclear waste storage. Dry cask storage is only experimental.  The technology is so new and has not been tested with radioactive waste over a long-term scientific study.

“If Holtec’s system is damaging the canisters, that’s a defective system,” said Torgen Johnson of the Del Mar-based Samuel Lawrence Foundation. “In any engineered system if you have metal-to-metal abrasion that wasn’t intended, you have a defective system and that system needs to be recalled. Clearly, we have a defective system here.”

Nuclear Waste
by the Numbers

3.6 million pounds – nuclear waste stored at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

8.4 million people – living within 50 miles of the plant 

108 feet – nuclear waste distance from ocean

2 feet – water table below nuclear waste, with rising seas

37 – nuclear waste fuel rods packed into each steel 50 ton canister 

100,000s years – radiation from Uranium, Plutonium, Cesium remains lethal

Source:  Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune

 

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