The Nuclear Cleanup At San Onofre Isn't Moving Fast Enough, Congressmen Say

Ocean waves come ashore near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station along San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

About 8 million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre, the now-defunct, beach-adjacent nuclear plant located between Oceanside and San Clemente. Inside the plant is 1,600 tons of radioactive waste. Much of the spent nuclear fuel is currently sitting in cooling pools waiting to be moved to a safer location — specifically, one that's less vulnerable to earthquake faults and rising sea levels.

On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Levin and Orange County Rep. Harley Rouda spoke to reporters at Southern California Edison's decommissioned facility about a proposal to speed up the removal of that waste.

There are two moves needed. One is to get it out of the cooling ponds at San Onofre and into the dry concrete bunkers. That will enable the defunct plant to be dismantled.

But the members of Congress want to accelerate another move of the spent fuel out of state to "interim" storage and eventually to permanent storage

Nuclear waste cleanup at the San Onofre nuclear power plant has been on hold since last summer after a mishap involving a 50-ton container of radioactive material.

Rep. Mike Levin says Congress should set new priorities for which power plants get top priority to ship the fuel elsewhere. The oceanfront San Onofre plant within his Oceanside Congressional district would be right at the top of the list, according to his proposed new criteria.

"We probably shouldn't have had a nuclear power plant here in the first place," Levin said. "But now that we do, and we're stuck with 1,600 tons of spent radioactive nuclear fuel, we better do everything we can do to prioritize."

He wants plants that are closed, and located near near large population centers and at risk from earthquake faults and rising sea levels to get priority permits to transport the waste out of state.

Levin said he would introduce a bill when he returns to Congress that would change the criteria. He said he disagreed with current policies that call for the oldest fuel to be shipped to remote storage first, citing the higher risk to dense nearby populations.

Rouda and Levin were among 15 members who called on Congress earlier this month to spend $25 million hurrying the development of interim storage spots. Two locations, in West Texas and New Mexico, are in the process of getting permits to store nuclear waste on an interim basis while the federal government seeks a permanent home for it.

Ron Pontes, manager for environmental permitting for the de-commissioning work at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station describes the concrete storage bunkers where nuclear waste will be stored until it can be taken out of state. (Sharon McNary / LAist)

WHAT WENT WRONG AT SAN ONOFRE LAST AUGUST?

Spent nuclear fuel is being held in cooling ponds and being transferred in giant canisters to new concrete bunkers about 100 feet from the ocean. A 28-foot high seawall is meant to keep seawater out of the bunkers. Edison contractors had already transferred 29 of 73 containers of nuclear waste to the new location.

But on August 3, a 20-foot tall canister containing more than 50 tons of radioactive waste was left suspended on a metal flange 18 feet above a storage bunker floor during its transfer. Safety slings to keep the canister from falling were disabled, so the danger was that the canister could have fallen. SCE spokesman John Dobken said SCE did not properly disclose the incident that day.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that from Jan. 30 to Aug. 3, 2018, workers loading the canisters into the bunkers "frequently" knocked the canister against components of the vault, potentially gouging the steel container.

Again, Edison did not document the contacts as it should have, Dobken said.

The NRC cited "apparent weaknesses in management oversight" of how the waste canisters were stored, and fined Edison $116,000 for the violation. The company did not sufficiently oversee its contractor doing the work of moving the canisters, the NRC said.

The company is waiting for the green light from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the work of transferring the waste.

Here is the NRC's November 2018 report that criticized Edison's handling of waste.

SAN ONOFRE CLOSED DUE TO MECHANICAL PROBLEMS

The August incident highlights the ongoing search for a safer place to store spent nuclear fuel at the plant located between the beach and I-5 on Navy-owned land between Oceanside and San Clemente.

The plant closed in 2012 after radioactive water was found leaking from a fairly new steam tube. Two massive steam generators had been recently installed, but some 3,000 steam tubes were showing premature wear. Edison retired the nuclear plant's two power generators in 2013.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, was capable of putting out 2200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.4 million homes.

Southern California Edison owns 78 percent of the plant, 20 percent is owned by San Diego Gas and Electric (sister company to SoCal Gas, parent company of both is Sempra), and City of Riverside Utilities Department owns 1.8 percent.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly described the party responsible for the NRC violations.