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New emergency agreement for San Onofre provides millions to local governments

Orange County Register

Jun. 4--Southern California Edison will pay local governments $22.5 million over coming decades to plan for and respond to any emergency at the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, according to a new agreement.

Orange and San Diego counties, as well as the cities closest to the plant -- San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano -- will get funding for emergency planning, training, exercises and communications efforts through 2049. That's the year everyone hopes the federal government will have finally found a permanent home for the nation's commercial nuclear waste.

In the agreement, agencies pledged to "actively work" together to persuade federal officials to find a repository, and to take San Onofre's waste first when relocation time finally arrives.

While some officials worried the money might not be enough -- "If we have a terrorist attack or something else occur, we could be in a world of hurt until we get those canisters off site," said Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett -- critics objected to a confidentiality clause they say will block the release of important information to the public.

The agreement was approved by all five agencies this week.

Risk and money

The emergency risks posed by San Onofre have grown smaller. The plant ceased splitting atoms in 2012, eliminating the chance of a catastrophic core meltdown, and all spent fuel is slated to be out of cooling pools soon.

"After all the spent nuclear fuel is in dry storage this summer, San Onofre will be primarily an industrial deconstruction site for the next eight years," said Doug Bauder, Edison vice president and chief nuclear officer, in a prepared statement. "We value our longstanding relationships with the local jurisdictions, and maintaining our association with our local first responders for the long term is important to us and to the community."

The new agreement was three years in the making. It replaces a similar one and reflects diminished risk.

Funding to agencies will decrease over the years. In 2020-21, Orange County will get $960,171, San Diego County will get $366,509, and the three cities will each get $217,924.

The second year, they'll get 75 percent of that; the third, 66 percent; and then 25 percent from 2029 through 2049.

All told, that's $12.6 million for the eight-year tear-down period through 2029, and some $9.9 million for the 20-year period through 2049.

"One reason for that is the drastically reduced risk posture of the site," spokesman John Dobken said by email. "During operations, there were 82 emergency action levels (or adverse plant conditions) for San Onofre. Once all the spent fuel is in passive dry storage, there will be three. None involve an off-site radiological release, even as a result of outlier events such as earthquakes or aircraft impacts."

Orange County's total will be $10.2 million over the life of the agreement, and supervisors worry that might not be enough.

"These funds cover just the basics," Bartlett said. "If there's an incident, those bills are going to be really big. Evacuation of cities. Nuclear fuel leaking into atmosphere. I need to have confidence SCE will step up to the plate."

Donna Boston, director of emergency management for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, said that if an emergency costs agencies more money, the agreement allows them to bill Edison for the excess.

Edison is proud of the agreement. To its knowledge, no other decommissioning plant in the nation is continuing to support local emergency response at this level, it said.

Confidentiality clause

Some activists objected, particularly to one clause.

"No party will use, copy, adapt, alter, part with possession of or otherwise disclose any information or record of another party ... which is of a confidential nature or has been identified as confidential ... in accordance with applicable Federal and California State laws," the agreement says.

"The confidentiality clause allows Edison to hide radiation levels and other information the public should have a right to know," said Donna Gilmore in a letter opposing the agreement. "This clause is a huge red flag. Edison should not have free reign to decide what should be kept from the public. Don't allow Edison to have the unlimited authority to censor our government from information the public needs and deserves to know."

In fact, Edison said, the confidentiality clause was added at the request of Orange County, not the company. The state's public records laws would still apply to government records.

Edison recently unveiled its first batch of monthly radiation-monitoring data through the California Department of Public Health -- an attempt to allay community concerns about the "nuclear waste dump on the beach," as critics have called the dry storage systems. Monitors are placed at strategic points on the pads, with a control monitor on a hill above.

Real-time reports?

Critics say it's not enough. They want real-time radiation reporting, and monitors placed directly at outlet air vents for the more than 130 canisters that will soon be in storage.

"Unless monitors are located near the outlet air vents, we won't know which canisters are failing," Gilmore said

Edison said this may reflect a misunderstanding between radiation and contamination.

"Radiation is like heat from a fire. Put something in front of it and you don't feel the heat, or as much heat," spokesman Dobken said. That's what the systems do with their canisters and concrete shielding. Readings at the vents versus the sides or front would not be different from a radiation perspective, he said.

Contamination, though, would require a breach of the canisters allowing material from inside the canister to work its way out via the air vent.

"Underlying this theory is the false belief the canisters are cracked," Dobken said. "They aren't. We conduct surveys of the areas around the (dry storage systems) so would see any of this material if it existed. But it doesn't."

Edison measures radiation on site and reports that to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state. "If there were contamination coming out, we would find that," Dobken said.


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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 5, 2020 3:42 pm GMT

 "If we have a terrorist attack or something else occur, we could be in a world of hurt until we get those canisters off site,"

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett's ignorance of fuel storage is appalling, given her reponsibility to make informed decisions about San Onofre.

Why would a terrorist bother attacking a fuel canister filled with depleted, spent fuel? If one was able to sneak in (unlikely) and break one open (more unlikely), the terrorist would promptly be neutralized by Edison's extensive, armed security detail. Then, workers in hazmat attire would arrive and clean it up - like they would any other hazardous waste. No one - not Edison workers, not residents, not even the terrorist - would be in a "world of hurt" from spent nuclear fuel.

Bartlett is terrorized more by her vivid imagination than any credible threat to the community she represents.

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