What to do about San Onofre’s nuclear waste?

Written by

In June of 2013, utility giant Southern California Edison announced it was retiring its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station after nearly 50 years of service. The atomic power plant, located on the border of San Diego and Orange counties, had experienced a series of technical problems that had led to the release of a small amount of radiation. San Onofre’s problems sparked fears among residents in nearby communities, like San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Oceanside, who questioned whether the plant could ever be operated safely.

Edison is now turning its attention to a $4.4 billion, 20-year-long effort to decommission San Onofre. The plant will be demolished, the rubble cleared, and the property handed over to the Department of Defense. But the closure of San Onofre and its appointment with the wrecking ball hasn’t ended debate over the facility.

Because the federal government has failed to establish a central location to permanently store the country’s thousands of tons of commercial nuclear waste, San Onofre’s highly radioactive nuclear fuel will remain on-site. stored in a kind of atomic tomb that’s now under construction.

Edison says its nuclear storage facility will be safe and secure, but critics disagree.

KCRW went to San Onofre to explore the issue.

During its operational life, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s atomic reactors produced over 1,600 metric tons of nuclear waste. Because the U.S. Department of Energy hasn’t established a permanent repository for America’s atomic garbage, Edison is building a storage facility for the waste at San Onofre. When the nuclear facility is demolished, the waste will stay on-site. (Photo: Southern California Edison)
On the northern edge of the San Onofre, work continues on building the burial chambers for the plant’s used nuclear fuel. When the project is done late in 2017, workers will begin the delicate process of moving the fuel from where it’s currently stored, enormous pools of water right next to the  atomic reactors. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
The nuclear waste, which are spent fuel rods from San Onofre’s atomic reactors, will be placed in 73 steel canisters that will be surrounded by concrete and partially buried in a process known as dry cask storage. Manufactured by Holtec International, Edison says the canisters are a proven technology that have been used since the 1980s.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
San Clemente resident Donna Gilmore is the founder of San Onofre Safety, a group critical of Edison. She questions the quality of Edison’s nuclear waste storage canisters, fearing their walls are too thin and too vulnerable to corrosion. Gilmore also says Edison doesn’t have equipment in place to detect cracks or leaks in the canisters that could lead to the release of radiation. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Tom Palmisano is Southern California Edison’s chief nuclear officer. He says his company is doing everything possible to ensure the safe storage of nuclear waste at San Onofre. If the federal government doesn’t find a permanent repository for nuclear waste, Palmisano says Edison will work to move the plant’s spent fuel to interim storage sites in New Mexico or Texas. But he acknowledges, even in the best case scenario, it could take decades until the nuclear waste is moved. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)