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Edison aims to rally allies nationwide to push feds on permanent nuclear waste storage

  • Mar 16, 2021
Orange County Register

Mar. 16—Newton's first law of motion states that a body at rest tends to stay at rest — and a body in motion tends to stay in motion — unless acted on by an external force. It's called inertia, in science as well as politics.

Millions of pounds of highly radioactive waste won't be removed from the bluff over the Pacific Ocean at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station until state officials, local leaders and average citizens join forces to demand that the federal government push past paralysis and find a home for the nation's nuclear waste, according to new action plans from Southern California Edison and an independent panel of experts released Monday, March 15.

To that end, the counties of Orange and San Diego — as well as local city and chamber of commerce leaders from San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Stanton and more — have signed on with Edison to "further build momentum toward commercially reasonable offsite storage or disposal solutions, and to urge the federal government to meet its legal obligations."

This new "stakeholder coalition," called Action for Spent Fuel Solutions Now, hopes to draft community members as it prods the federal government to fulfill the promise it made more than 20 years ago but has failed to keep: to permanently dispose of highly radioactive spent fuel for commercial nuclear reactors across the nation.

Edison also released detailed plans related to getting the fuel out of Southern California. They examine options and obstacles for relocating it to an array of sites, including permanent storage in deep boreholes, temporary facilities envisioned in Texas and New Mexico, on higher ground on San Onofre's site or even elsewhere in California; how to safely transport waste from Point A to Point B; and laying groundwork so Edison is prepared when the time finally comes to move it.

"It is clear that to make tangible progress on this issue, the federal government must act. Rather than wait for this to happen, we are going to be a catalyst for change," said Kevin Payne, Edison's president and CEO, in a prepared statement.

Edison plans to draft utilities across the nation — and their communities — into the battle, setting this campaign apart, said Caroline Choi, senior vice president for corporate affairs.

"Having a really focused and concentrated effort — not just by the nuclear industry, but by stakeholders and communities really lending their voices to say 'Enough is enough. The time is now to take action' — will hopefully send a powerful message to Congress and federal officials," Choi said. "Every year's delay is another year longer in getting the fuel off the site. It's such a lengthy process. It really does need to get going now."

Long overdue

San Onofre's reactors — which started splitting atoms more than 50 years ago — were powered down nine years ago, but 123 canisters of spent fuel remain in what has been derided as "a beachfront nuclear waste dump," and are likely to be there for decades.

The documents released Monday total hundreds of pages, and were required by a legal settlement in 2017 over the coastal development permit issued for San Onofre's fuel storage system. It required Edison to assemble a panel of independent experts to have input on the issues. The former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison Macfarlane, is one of them.

"This is a step in the right direction," said Maria Severson, an attorney with Aguirre & Severson, which filed the suit that resulted in the settlement." Now it is up to our citizens to call upon their local representatives and state and federal elected officials to make it a priority to relocate the nuclear waste buried in shallow sand on our beaches. We need to move that waste. Our children's future depends on it."

U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, said he's listening. Levin convened his own task force on San Onofre and pushed legislation prioritizing "stranded" waste at shuttered sites like San Onofre for removal.

"I appreciate additional advocacy on these issues," Levin said. "My top priorities are increasing oversight at San Onofre and moving the spent nuclear fuel out of the region as quickly and safely as possible, and I will continue to work with anyone who shares those goals."

David Victor, co-director of UC San Diego's Laboratory on International Law and Regulation, is also chair of Edison's volunteer Community Engagement Panel on San Onofre's tear-down. The plans will be discussed in greater detail at the CEP meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 18, that will be streamed online.

"It is an extremely comprehensive and sobering report," Victor said. "Among its findings is that when you look closely at the most practical options, it is almost certain that new federal legislative action will be needed. Even as we focus on the long-term stewardship of the spent fuel on site, we need to get ourselves organized, politically, to put pressure on the federal government."

Edison is regularly lambasted by vocal activists for keeping fuel on site, with debate going granular — the thickness of the casks, the distance to the shore break, the height of the water table. That is where the focus, for many, remains.

"The problem is akin to an architect installing flush toilets in your home, but neglecting to provide the plumbing required to carry the waste away. Now they have a huge stinky mess," said Charles Langley, executive director of Public Watchdogs, which has filed several actions trying to revoke Edison's permits to store the waste.

"We wish them luck in their search for a future location, but are more concerned about the safety of the radioactive waste that is stranded on the beach right now ... sitting on 108 feet from the beach in partially below-ground silos that are only guaranteed for 10 years, and in canisters that are only guaranteed 25 years. Getting it off the beach is urgent, but it is unlikely that it can be done lawfully in the next 50 years."

The reports, prepared by consultant North Wind with the input of Edison's expert panel, say the time frame could be as little as 20 years if temporary sites are licensed in New Mexico or Texas. That could happen this year.

Billions waiting

The U. S. Department of Energy was contractually obligated to start removing waste from commercial reactors in 1998. In exchange, utility customers pumped billions into the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for it.

More than $10 billion was spent on moribund Yucca Mountain. Another $43 billion languishes in the fund — about $1 billion of it from Edison's customers. And there's still no solution in sight.

Stuck with the waste, utilities sued the DOE, and the DOE has paid hundreds of millions in legal settlements. That's taxpayer money — not Nuclear Waste Fund dollars — that have paid to build temporary storage at scores of plants nationwide.

"Put simply, a federal solution, or at least one that encompasses a significant degree of federal support, offers the surest and most achievable path to relocating the (waste)," the reports say. "All other alternatives create uncertain but potentially large risks and costs and thus are far less likely to meet the test of commercial reasonableness."


(c)2021 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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