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Critics Question Plans For Nuclear Waste Storage At San Onofre

Nuclear expert says it’s a “witches brew of radioactivity”

The threat of a nuclear meltdown is no longer a concern at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station because it’s shut down.

A shuttered nuclear plant does present another potential threat to public safety, according to an editorial in the April 2016 edition of Scientific American Magazine. The article warns of a greater danger, and says “more threatening than a meltdown, it's the steady accumulation of radioactive waste.”

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was permanently retired by its owners, Southern California Edison, SCE, and SDG&E in 2013. The plant’s operations left 3.6 million pounds of radioactive waste behind.

If all goes as planned that radioactive waste is headed to bluffs just north of the dead reactors above San Onofre State Beach. It will sit near Interstate 5 in Southern California between two major metropolitan areas, San Diego and Los Angeles, where 17 million people call home.

Fifty canisters of radioactive leftovers, from fuel burned before the plant closed, are already in storage on the plant's property. It accounts for about 30 percent of the radioactive waste on site. In the spring of 2017, the remaining radioactive waste will begin to be moved out of the pools of cooling water where it is currently stored and into 100 stainless steel dry casks which will also be encased in a cement pad. 

Daniel Hirsch, the Director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at UC Santa Cruz, said it is imperative the fuel rods be moved out of the pools and into dry casks as soon as possible.

“It is the most dangerous stuff on earth; a witches brew of radioactive material," he said.

A fuel rod is a long zirconium metal tube containing pellets of fissionable material, which provide fuel for nuclear reactors.

"Those pools are so densely packed, that if you lose the coolant you could have a fire in them," Hirsch said.

According to a report from Robert Alvarez, a former policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy, a pool fire would release more radioactivity than a reactor meltdown.

Hirsch, a long-time critic of the industry told NBC 7 Investigates the clock is ticking, something the plant’s owners agree with.

The location of the waste storage is something the plant’s owners and nuclear waste critics do not agree with.

“They're going to be stored on the beach in the worst possible location you can imagine," Charles Langley, who opposes the storage plans at San Onofre, said. Langley tracks all things related to San Onofre and the nuclear waste storage plans for Public Watchdogs, a San Diego based non-profit website.

The proposed storage site is northwest of the plant’s units one and two; the two reactor domes that can be seen from the freeway. 

Currently, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is the largest privately-owned coastal nuclear storage site in the country. When compared to government owned sites, it’s the second largest in the country, behind the Hanford Site in Washington where the first plutonium reactor was built and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan was created. 

Langley said the location selected is all about money. "It's the cheapest alternative,” he said. “It's what’s best for the stockholders. It’s not what's best for the people of Orange and San Diego County."

SCE does not agree. Neither does the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC, and the California Coastal Commission, which both approved the Pacific coastline location.

It’s not a case of no risk, the utilities argue, but low risk.

In January, due to El Nino weather conditions, there was considerable erosion of the beaches and bluffs around the San Onofre plant, the same area where the canisters will be stored.

Nina Babiarz, a transportation consultant and former journalist, said the location for the nuclear waste storage is a poor one.

"It's on an earthquake fault in a tsunami zone," she said.

NBC 7 Investigates reviewed weather reports and found rising sea levels at and around the nuclear waste storage location could continue.

A Pacific Institute report on sea level rise, with contributions by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, found "flooding and erosion" risks will increase. According to the report, "in areas where the coast erodes easily, sea level rise will likely accelerate shoreline recession" and "may expose previously protected areas to flooding."

The United States Geological Service found the same dynamics: extreme bluff, cliff and beach erosion, accelerating over time.

The City of Del Mar, located 33 miles from San Onofre and with a similar coastline, did its own risk assessment of projected impact from sea level rise, storm surges and coastal flooding. In its assessment it describes the potential for extensive flooding and cliff collapses. 

Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric say chances of a radioactive incident at San Onofre are lower now that the plant’s reactors are turned off, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees. NBC 7 Investigates reporter Mari Payton has more on emergency planning at the plant.

No matter the weather conditions, SCE claims there's little risk any one of the 50-ton canisters, wrapped in concrete, will leak.

SCE describes the storage containers as "robust,” a "proven technology...The design exceeds California earthquake requirements, protects against water, fire or tsunamis'...inaccessible to missiles or projectiles.” 

Nuclear power plants throughout the country have been safely storing used fuel since 1986, SCE has said. The company cites an analysis by the nuclear industry that shows it would take at least 80 years for a severe crack in the canister to occur. By then, the utility says, science will have a solution.

In a March 24 letter to San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, the NRC said, "there is a decreased risk to the public due to the reactor being defueled."

The letter continues by describing how it came to this conclusion and cites how SCE told the NRC about the minimal risk of a nuclear accident at a closed San Onofre.

This information resulted in changes to how emergency response plans at the plant will be handled. The NRC agreed to a series of exemptions requested by the utility, including no longer requiring SCE to be responsible for emergency response due to a nuclear accident at San Onofre, except for on the grounds of the reactor site.

Prior to this exemption, the utility was held responsible to provide equipment and money in the case of an emergency for a much wider area.

In a statement, a representative with SCE said, “Southern California Edison is committed to a safe, timely and transparent decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear plant that protects the environment, and the health and safety of the public. Keeping the public informed is important to our efforts, which is why detailed information regarding the decommissioning process, how we safely store used nuclear fuel, and our current emergency response plans -- including our ongoing partnerships with local emergency responders -- can be found on SONGScommunity.com.”

"Now the only emergency planning response we have is San Diego County Emergency Services," Babiarz said.

NBC 7 Investigates contacted the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services and a spokesperson said the agency is up for the task. It conducts Federal Emergency Management Association-evaluated San Onofre drills and has for the past three decades.

As long as the radioactive fuel rods are stored, 2019 at the latest, SCE has committed $325,000 a year to San Diego County. County emergency services leaders said they have no funding or emergency response problems even with the SCE pullout but they have asked the NRC for additional funds. So far, they said, nothing has happened in regards to that request.

In a separate series of letters obtained by NBC 7 investigates another change related to emergency preparation at San Onofre evolved.

In one letter, the NRC said, "based on the exemptions granted to SCE, the NRC no longer requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to monitor, review or report on offsite" radiological emergency preparedness.

FEMA is the primary federal agency responsible for preparing and responding in emergencies.

"How could we possible have lost the emergency planning support and response of Federal Emergency Management Agency?” Babiarz asked.

According to a memorandum of understanding the NRC has with FEMA, the NRC has the authority to grant the exemption based on documents provided to the agency by the SCE. 

The California Office of Emergency Services, in a letter to FEMA, said "rather than abruptly end this program, we urge FEMA to continue working with Cal OES, the NRC and San Diego County..."

The agency’s request was denied.

NBC 7 Investigates contacted the NRC asking about Cal OES’s request. The agency did not provide any answers and said it was "between the state and FEMA."

Click here to read the letters. 

Cal OES’s director, Mark Ghilarducci, told NBC 7 Investigates he stands by his request to FEMA and said "the public also needs as much reassurance as possible that necessary safety measures are continuing in a unified effort by all parties."

A FEMA spokesperson told NBC 7 Investigates that if there is a nuclear accident at San Onofre, the agency would be able to respond if there is a presidential declaration asking the agency to do so. Click here to read more of FEMA's response.

NBC 7 Investigates is working for you. If you have more information about this or other story tips, contact us: (619) 578-0393, NBC7Investigates@nbcuni.com. To receive the latest NBC 7 Investigates stories subscribe to our newsletter.

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