Too Hot to Handle. Too Hot to Move.
Over 1,600 tons mostly ‘high burn-up’ highly radioactive waste is stored in overlapping earthquake, tsunami, and wildfire zones at the shutdown San Onofre reactor site.
Donna Gilmore, founder of SanOnofreSafety.org, explains in seven minutes why what’s happening with San Onofre’s high level nuclear fuel waste is incredibly dangerous and vitally important for the public to know about.
San Onofre, owned by Southern California Edison, may be considered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as a prototype for dealing with the deadly intensely radioactive reactor waste in shut down reactors across the U.S., according to Citizen’s Engagement Chair, David Victor.
Residents must pressure the NRC and utility owners not to make storage decisions for highly corrosive, hot radioactive waste hazardous for 250,000 years based on cost rather than safety.
Cutting corners on design, materials and personnel puts all of southern California, major seaports and the nation’s food supply at risk.
For a 2-page PDF summarizing Gilmore’s research and recommendations to the CPUC, DENY FUNDING FOR NUHOMS 32PHT2-DSC DRY STORAGE CANISTERS – INDEPENDENT STUDY NEEDED REGARDING SAN ONOFRE NUCLEAR WASTE STORAGE click here.
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What You Can Do
Lowering the Bar for “Waste Confidence” Policy
Policy for short, mid- and long-term storage for tons of extremely radioactive ‘high burn-up’ nuclear fuel at nuclear reactor sites around the country may be set at the recently shutdown San Onofre nuclear plant on the southern California coast between San Diego and L.A..
Its shutdown on June 7, 2013 was an important milestone in the accelerating demise of nuclear power. Fairewinds.org Chief Nuclear Engineer, Arnie Gundersen called it, “A seismic event for the nuclear industry.”
Now the controversial conundrum of what to do with its over 1,600 tons of highly radioactive waste in an earthquake/tsunami/wildfire zone in the middle of Camp Pendelton, a major strategic US military base, in a major urban, industrial, shipping and agricultural region is becoming a major point in the nuclear policy debate.
That’s why a recent “Community Engagement Meeting” hosted June 22 by Southern California Edison [Video here.] drew the attendance of high level transnational nuclear industry executives with an eye for the tremendous profits to be made from the decommissioning process.
However, the hasty rush by the NRC to approve a controversial cask for storage without considering the additional problems of ‘high burn up’ fuel was partially blocked by joint action of environmental groups who signed onto a letter by Diane Curran to the NRC.
NRC Breaks Own Rules
In a recent letter to the NRC on behalf of over 20 environmental groups, D.C. attorney Diane Curran urged the agency to ‘withdraw and reconsider’ a hasty rule change issued April 15, 2014 approving ““new transportable dry shielded canister (DSC)” for shipment of high burn-up fuel on the nation’s highways and railways. According to Curran,
The Direct Rule flagrantly violates the requirements of the Atomic Energy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act for prior notice and opportunity for public participation in NRC decisions affecting public safety and the environment. Citizens Awareness Network v. NRC, 59 F.3d 284 (1st Cir. 1995). Equally troubling, the notice is grossly misleading, and appears designed to lull the public into a false sense of confidence. [ Full PDF of letter here. ]
In response, on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, the NRC made this announcement in the Federal Register:
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is withdrawing a direct final rule that would have revised its spent fuel storage regulations to include Amendment No. 3 to Certificate of Compliance (CoC) No. 1029, Transnuclear, Inc. Standardized Advanced NUHOMS[supreg] Horizontal Modular Storage System listing within the “List of approved spent fuel storage casks.” The NRC is taking this action because it has received at least one significant adverse comment in response to a companion proposed rule that was concurrently published with the direct final rule.
This can be seen as a partial success for safety advocates, but the Commission went on to say, “the NRC will address the comments in a subsequent final rule. The NRC will not
initiate a second comment period on this action.” As Donna Gilmore says, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Cutting Corners on Safety
The French company Areva’s U.S. subsidiary TransNuclear is hoping to sell the NUHOMS cask to San Onofre (and then to other utilities bulging with nowhere-to-put-it high level nuclear waste spent fuel assemblies). Critics of the pending deal point out that the outer wall of the NUHOMS cask is only five-eights of an inch thick. This is in stark contrast to cask designs in other countries, where cask constructions range from 15 to 20 inches thick. [For example, see this description of the widely-used (outside the U.S.) Castor cask.]
Meanwhile intense discussions are going on at local, regional and national levels about how to best manage the accumulated nuclear waste at San Onofre in overlapping wildfire, tsunami and earthquake zones. Some say store it as securely as possible where it is. Some say ‘Get it into dry casks ASAP.’ Some say move it further inland on the vast Camp Pendelton complex. Others say “get it out of here!” to somewhere else in California that’s in a drier location or even out of state.
The objections to all of these proposals revolve around several conundrums. The San Onofre waste is being held currently only 13 feet above high tide in a highly corrosive ocean environment in the midst of a huge population spanning from Los Angeles to San Diego.
(1) Spent fuel pools are much more densely packed than designed for originally, reducing cooling water circulation and making them more precarious and less safe. (2) Spent fuel pools are dependent on off-site supplies of power to be kept cool otherwise they can boil dry and potentially combust on exposure to oxygen, releasing huge amounts of radiation in a fire. (3) Power disruptions are more likely now than ever before due to extreme weather events caused by climate change. (4) Spent fuel pools are not protected by reinforced containments like reactor vessels are, though they contain many years worth of reactor cores and therefore, much more radioactivity than a single reactor core. (5) Spent fuel pools are vulnerable to terrorist attacks or accidents, wildfires or tsunamis like Fukushima experienced. (6) Newly released information from NRC studies show the ‘high burn-up’ fuel assemblies, used for the last 17 years, must be held in spent fuels for 15 to 20 years before they cool sufficiently to be transferred to dry casks – contrasted with 5-7 years for non-high burn-up assemblies. But current NRC and utility thinking is to ignore the studies and move them into dry cask storage after a shorter cooling time. Many concerned citizens are advocating moving the ‘spent’ fuel as soon as possible into dry cask storage. (7) Many are unaware of the unique challenges presented by ‘high burn up’ fuel. Cladding on ‘high burn up’ fuel is more prone to cracking, thinning and sloughing off, exposing the uranium fuel pellets. (8) The cladding of high burn-up fuel rods continue to degrade after being removed from cooling pools and placed in dry casks, causing potential hydrogen explosions. (9) No dry cask design under consideration has yet been shown to be adequate for both long-term storage (more than 20 years) and for transportation of high burn-up fuel assemblies, nor adequate in consideration of the increased fragility of the ‘high burn up’ fuel cladding.
The San Onofre waste perplex is a microcosm of the serious questions facing all nuclear plants…and there are no quick and easy answers.
According to San Onofre Site Vice President Tom Palmisano, “San Onofre has 2,776 fuel assemblies in spent fuel pools in Units 2 and 3 and about 800 Unit 2 and 3 assemblies in dry storage. In addition, there are about 400 Unit 1 used fuel assemblies in dry storage.” An estimated 1,602 of the fuel assemblies are high burn-up.
A National Model?
To help understand why San Onofre is becoming one of the epicenters of the growing nuclear waste storage controversy, its helpful to summarize the main points in the current state of play:
With 5 reactors slated for decommissioning since San Onofre’s shutdown and more on the way, ‘decommissioning’ is being promoted as a growth industry.
Affected utilities will want to cut costs and maximize profits – as is their chartered fiduciary corporate mandate.
That means each plant is run by a limited liability company, which can go bankrupt or sell out and walk away without danger to the parent corporation.
It also means that they want continued insurance coverage under the Price-Anderson Act, which means the taxpayers pick up most of the tab for any future disaster that may happen.
At the same time, they want the NRC to assume that, now that the plants are shut down, the risks to public health and safety (which they also deny exist) will be reduced, thus eliminating the need for evacuation plans, trained and equipped emergency responders, and radiation monitoring technicians.
They’re saying, “There is no risk. But we don’t want to be liable if anything does happen.” Let’s let the taxpayers and the ratepayers foot the bill.
Ratepayers pay for Southern California Edison’s mistakes
Nothing drives that point home like the ongoing controversy over the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) proposed ‘settlement’ of the allocation of costs for the massive mistakes Southern California Edison executives made with the faulty steam generators that caused San Onofre’s shutdown. In what outraged citizen groups are calling a backroom secret deal between SCE, CPUC and the insider utility watchdog group TURN, ratepayers will be saddled with over $3.3 billion in charges for the utility’s screw-ups.
The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) announced a public meeting regarding the San Onofre proposed settlement, Monday, June 16, 2014, at the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center, 1845 Park Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92627, 4pm to 7pm. The public was invited to present their views and ask questions.
The press release explained that the proposed settlement,
…provides that SCE receive $3.3 billion for the crippled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). Proponents have sold this as a $1.4 billion “refund” but in reality, that figure is simply the difference from the original absurd utility request of $4.7 billion and the proposed settlement figure.
Opponents believe ratepayers should receive refund checks of about $250 million.
“The difference in the two sides is stark. The utilities and their followers want ratepayers to provide the net asset value of the base plant PLUS a return of 2.65%, a situation unheard of, even in the distorted world of public utilities,” said Ray Lutz, National Coordinator of Citizens Oversight, representing the Coalition to Decommission San Onofre (CDSO) a leading opponent to the bailout settlement. “It is clear that the Commission had this rigged from the beginning, as the meat of the investigation was delayed so long while they fiddled with inconsequential issues.”
Parties to the Proceeding are of differing opinions as to how to respond to the ruling. Some, like Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the Santa Barbara-based World Business Council want to move on and devote their energies and resources to closing the PG&E plant near San Luis Obispo, just north of Santa Barbara. Others, like former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre and Ray Lutz of CitizensOversight.org, are calling the deal a ratepayer rip-off.
This video by Ace Hoffman shows what Attorney Mike Aguirre had to say about the ruling.
This is Ray Lutz’s powerpoint presentation, which he was not permitted to present to the Commissioners.
For more on this issue, see VIDEO: CPUC president curses out San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre
Cutting Safety Corners
Southern California Edison’s recent request to the NRC to dispense with emergency response, evacuation and safety measures at the shutdown plant has evoked Sen. Barbara Boxer’s outrage. She’s currently in a showdown with the NRC over its refusal to hand over requested documents. And has filed criminal charges. [ see: Nuclear regulators to Sen. Boxer: ‘None of your business’ in the not exactly radical Orange County Register.
and this video clip Sen. Boxer Reads SCE’s Request for EXEMPTION from ALL Offsite Evacuation Plans at SONGS! ]
No Place for Waste
Meanwhile, despite calls for resuming construction of a waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca mountain, it remains closed. A recent fire, explosion and radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, New Mexico has caused its indefinite closure. And the temporary diversion to above ground nuclear waste sites in Texas of shipments of nuclear waste from around the country slated for WIPP have been stopped.
For an excellent recent WIPP update, see: Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster by Joseph Trento
In this video, Insight New Mexico host V.B. Price gets an update on the WIPP leak from Don Hancock, Director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program for the SW Research and Information Center.
So, whether they know it or not nuclear waste is about to become a big issue for the 113 million people living within 10 miles of the nation’s nukes – a third of the U.S. population.
The situation at San Onofre throws the decommissioning conundrum into stark relief with implications for all reactor communities here and around the world:
High Burn-Up ‘spent’ nuclear fuel is: Too hot to handle. Too hot to ship. And there’s no place to put it safely.
Meanwhile, a shadowy agency within the Department of Energy (DoE) called the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) is overseeing the shipping of decommissioned nuclear weapons materials from other countries to the U.S., allegedly for reprocessing into nuclear reactor fuel – a process which produces even more radioactive waste. For more on this, see Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster
Its high time for an informed and outraged public to get involved in the nuclear waste policy debate.
What You Can Do
Become Informed and share information and links with your networks
Check out the SanOnofreSafety.org Nuclear Waste Page
Read: Core Message to the NRC
From the Coalition to Decommission San Onofre
and Sierra Club Angeles Chapter ‐ San Onofre Task Force
E-mail Senator Boxer:
Tell her you support her efforts with the NRC regarding San Onofre
Make a tax-deductible contribution to the SOS Waste Project
A joint project of SanOnofreSafety.org and EON, a 501 c 3, tax-exempt organization
Send check to: EON, PO Box 1047, Bolinas, CA 94924 (Memo – SOS Waste Project )
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Or via the EON Donate page