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Two groups look for paths to move nuclear waste off the beach at San Onofre

San Diego Union-Tribune

For decades, the debate over nuclear power plants has been fierce. And for just as long, progress on what to do with the used-up fuel at those facilities has been feeble.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has not produced electricity since 2012 but 3.55 million pounds of waste dating back to when the plant was active remains on site because — as in the cases of nuclear facilities across the country — the federal government has not found a permanent site for the spent fuel to go.

Two groups, though, are trying to find some solutions specific to San Onofre, despite decades of stalemate.

"You shouldn't be in this business if you're not an optimist," said Tom Isaacs, chairman of a panel of nuclear energy experts assembled by Southern California Edison, the operator of the San Onofre plant, known as SONGS for short. "Yes, I'm optimistic, but I'm also realistic and a lot of things have to happen that have not happened in the past for this to go forward."

The panel that includes Allison Macfarlane, who chaired the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2012 to 2014, was formed last year as part of an out-of-court settlement between Edison and two San Diego area plaintiffs who challenged the permit granted by the California Coastal Commission allowing the utility to store the waste on SONGS premises.

The panel has met about 15 times to explore alternative sites and transportation options for the spent fuel.

In addition, Edison officials four months ago hired a consulting group to "develop a strategic plan" to relocate the spent fuel to a "commercially reasonable" facility.

The utility signed a 20-month contract with North Wind, a firm based in Idaho with experience in nuclear facility operations and management. One of the members of the team is Ernest Moniz, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy during the Obama administration.

"We're not naïve about the challenges associated with finding a solution," said Phil Niedzielski-Eichner, the team director for North Wind. "This is the first time a single utility has pursued it on their own. We think that might be a catalyst for national action ... We want to focus on getting a specific off-zone site."

As per the out-of-court settlement, the two groups are funded by $4 million from a $4.4 billion decommissioning trust fund that has built up over time from collected payments by SONGS customers.

Originally, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the federal government was supposed to find at least one site to permanently store used fuel accumulated at nuclear power plants across the country. A few years later, the Yucca Mountain site about 100 miles from Las Vegas was selected.

Yucca was but in 2007 Nevada Democrat Harry Reid b, and when Barack Obama was elected president a year later, his administration took another look at the project and funding was eventually cut off.

Since then, about 80,000 metric tons of used commercial fuel has piled up at 121 sites in 35 states, including SONGS.

There has been talk about other options, such as "consolidated interim storage" at a remote private facility in West Texas and another in eastern New Mexico, until a permanent site is found.

The North Wind team sees a potential opportunity.

By looking specifically at SONGS instead of facilities across the whole country, "it increases the chances of being able to find a solution," Niedzielski-Eichner said. "Particularly now that there are some private opportunities (in New Mexico and Texas) that don't rely on the federal government's capabilities to accept the fuel."

But earlier this year, New Mexico's new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, came out in opposition to the $2.4 billion proposed site.

Another possible path is possibly reopening Yucca Mountain.

Last week, Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, voted for a bill that would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act so the federal government can resume work at Yucca and, in addition, authorize interim storage sites.

Such facilities "will be safer than housing nuclear waste near the ocean in San Diego and near bodies of water in other communities across America," Peters said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, introduced legislation that would give top priority to ship out spent fuel at plants that no longer generate electricity, near dense population centers and in earthquake areas. SONGS waste qualifies under all three scenarios.

"If there's a poster child for a site that should have priority for the country meeting its responsibility, (SONGS) would be it," Isaacs said.

But first, of course, a site or sites must be found. The North Wind team said it will come up with about eight or nine alternatives, assess their respective merits and design a plan for Edison to follow.

Isaac said the team of experts will essentially peer-review the North Wind recommendations. The panel will also come up with a "conceptual transportation plan" for potentially moving the waste away from San Onofre.

"You've got possible initiatives in New Mexico, Texas, and maybe some others will emerge," Isaacs said. "Southern Cal Edison needs to get ready so that if one of these things emerges, we don't say, 'Oh my goodness, it's going to take us five more years to get ready.' They should be getting ready now."

Some 50 canisters filled with nuclear fuel assemblies sit at what is called a "dry storage" facility at SONGS. Another 40 have been transferred from "wet storage" pools to a newly constructed dry storage site, with another 33 scheduled to be moved by the middle of next year.

The transfer operations were suspended for nearly one year after a 50-ton canister was accidentally suspended on the inner-ring near the top of a 20-foot storage cavity for about 45 minutes in August 2018.

The canister was eventually lowered safely but the incident prompted a special investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which eventually fined Edison $116,000 for failing to "establish a rigorous process to ensure adequate procedures, training and oversight guidance."


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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 26, 2019 4:22 pm GMT

There is, of course, no nuclear waste "on the beach" at San Onofre - it's safely stored in dry casks at the plant. But anti-nuclear activists remain undeterred, imagining rusting barrels on the beach amid visions of mushroom clouds and radioactive Armageddon.

They really need to get a life.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Nov 26, 2019 7:31 pm GMT

Trivializing the problem, disparaging the messengers, postponing solutions will not resolve the issue. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 26, 2019 11:43 pm GMT

There is no problem with spent nuclear fuel, Mark. The irrational hysteria of people who don't understand it is another story.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Nov 28, 2019 10:25 am GMT


It is not an easy task to go through the easily available literature on nuclear waste.  I would have thought that no one would like nuclear waste. Apparently, some do.  A few are, indeed, wildly irrational, both over and under in their evaluations of the risk. Here are a few sources of information from usually responsible sources that make sense to me. They include the Union of Concerned Scientists, ScienceThinkers, The Atlantic.

My criteria for selection include 1) the source 2) not  too old 3) balance of pros and cons  4) contain something I did not know before

I am a bit surprised at some of the sources I rejected, e.g. The New York Times, Stanford University. One of the most venerable publications, Nature, once declared the problem solved at Yucca Mountain, until it wasn´t.  And then there is the World Nuclear Association from, apparently, a place other than earth.

Some would say, and I agree, that the perception of the problem is, to some extent, the problem.  Others seem to say that public perception is irrational and irrelevant.  

There may yet be solutions.  But, without question or exception, they are expensive and will take a long time to implement.

If you don´t like my choices, select your own. There are plenty.

A simple statement of the issue:

The issue of TIME:

The issue of COST:


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 29, 2019 1:44 pm GMT

My criteria for selection include 1) the source 2) not  too old 3) balance of pros and cons  4) contain something I did not know before

Slightly off topic, but I love this-- everyone could do well to approach their media diet in the same way to ensure they're hearing viewpoints that may differ from there's and develop a well-rounded perspective in this way

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 4, 2019 9:02 pm GMT

"Nuclear fuel remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years after it is no longer useful in a commercial reactor."

I read only three sentences of your "Union of Concerned Scientists" reference before I encountered the first ridiculous piece of recycled Greenpeace fearmongering. Whether it's the last I'll never know, because reading the rest is a waste of time.

"Nuclear waste", or spent nuclear fuel as to which it's more accurately referred, is a mix of nearly all elements in the periodic table, with several isotopes of some. When anything is bombarded by high-energy neutrons some amount of transmutation occurs, where elements are transformed into others. Many isotopes are highly radioactive, and spent fuel as it comes out of a reactor is lethal. From the reactor it goes into pools of water, where it goes through a natural decay process for a period of roughly 7 years. By that time it has cooled sufficiently to be placed in dry storage - tall steel canisters which are welded shut.

There's a reason spent fuel isn't buried deep underground, and it's not carelessness. It's too valuable - less than 5% of the original U-235 fuel has been spent, thus it will be recycled long before it would ever leak into the environment (the 41 canisters of spent fuel onsite at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, if recycled, would be capable of powering the plant for 900 years).

It's important to understand the most dangerous radioactive isotopes decay the fastest1. That means the overall radioactivity of spent fuel decreases quickly at the start, then gradually over millions of years. It's not dangerous to humans for millions or even thousands of years, however - after 500-700 years it's less radioactive than the ground you walk upon every day (pure plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,110 years, is safe enough to hold in your hands).

The graph below shows radiation levels in Fukushima City after the 2011 accident, and is typical of the radioactive decay of spent fuel.

"And then there is the World Nuclear Association from, apparently, a place other than earth."

Whether you want to learn from experts or from popular media is, of course, your choice.

1 Abraham Weitzberg, PhD.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Dec 6, 2019 3:27 pm GMT

There are two egregious deceptions here:

1. Plutonium is “safe enough to hold in your hands”. That´s kind of like, say, an apple, right? It is absurd that this has to be rebutted.

The following is a quote from The New World Encyclopedia. I include it here just to add a little humor: “When taken in by mouth, plutonium is less poisonous (except for risk of causing cancer) than several common substances including caffeine, acetaminophen, some vitamins, pseudoephedrine, and any number of plants and fungi.”

No, I did not add the part in the parentheses.

Later on in the article they do go on to say “Extremely fine particles of plutonium (on the order of micrograms) can cause lung cancer if inhaled.”

Seriously though, and thankfully, human plutonium toxicity data in pretty hard to come by.  There is a report of high cancer incidence in a Russian nuclear plant that is frequently referenced.  It´s even worse if you smoke too.  No surprise there.

Otherwise, there is a ton of data  from dogs and other animals receiving doses of plutonium by numerous routes. It turns out that Plutonium is really toxic to dogs in very small amounts, especially when inhaled, e.g acute lethal dose of 160 micro grams for a 10 kg. dog.  The dogs died in a couple of months. That was not a surprise.   If you must know, they were Beagles.

The Effects of Smoking and Lung Health on the Organ Retention of Different Plutonium Compounds in the Mayak PA Workers K. G. Suslova, A. B. Sokolova, M. P. Krahenbuhl, S. C. Miller Radiation Research, Vol. 171, No. 3 (Mar., 2009), pp. 302-309 Plutonium Inhalation Studies: IV. Mortality in Dogs after Inhalation of Pu239O2, W. J. Bair and D. H. Willard , Radiation Research

Vol. 16, No. 6 (Jun., 1962), pp. 811-821 (11 pages)


2.  The statement  that “The graph below shows radiation levels in Fukushima City after the 2011 accident, and is typical of the radioactive decay of spent fuel” is highly suspicious.  Was the author attracted to the shape of the curve? 

Surely one would think the experts would have information on radiotoxicity of actual spent fuel, as opposed to the strange, at best,  assumption that Fukushima radiation levels were “typical of spent fuel”. 

OK. I´ve got graphs too.

A couple of points about this first graph: 

1. The deception in the previous author´s graph, likely unintentionally(?), may be that he means the fission products, but not the “actinides and other decay products” (in this graph) and the “initial” decay period in the graph below that. In any case, the total of the two would seem the most relevant.

2.  We are looking at a minimum of 100,000 years to get below the green line for the total.

Radiotoxicity of once-through spent nuclear fuel and its evolution in time (OECD, 2006). 


Regarding “once through”:

One of the objectives of the nuclear fuel cycles is to eventually return to the geosphere in waste form materials with a total toxicity that is not higher than that of the ore extracted for fuel fabrication... During the power production, most of the radiotoxic materials are stored in a safe manner in the core of reactors, in spent fuel on-site storage facilities and in reprocessing plants. This objective can be met only if advanced fuel cycles with reprocessing and use of fast spectrum reactors are part of the overall scenario. A once-through fuel cycle cannot achieve this. (Underlining is mine.)

Nuclear data for radioactive waste management, Annals of Nuclear Energy 62 (2013) 579–589,

Regarding Actinides:

Common Properties

  • All are radioactive due to instability.
  • Majority synthetically made by particle accelerators creating nuclear reactions and short lasting.
  • All are unstable and reactive due to atomic number above 83 (nuclear stability).
  • All have a silvery or silvery-white luster in metallic form.
  • All have the ability to form stable complexes with ligands, such as chloride, sulfate, carbonate and acetate.
  • Many of the actinides occur in nature as sea water or minerals.
  • They have the ability to undergo nuclear reactions.
  • The emission of radioactivity, toxicity, pyrophoricity, and nuclear criticality are properties that make them hazardous to handle.
    • Emission of Radioactivity: The types of radiation the elements possess are alpha, beta, gamma, as well as when neutrons are produced by spontaneous fissions or boron, beryllium, and fluorine react with alpha-particles.
    • Toxicity: Because of their radioactive and heavy metal characteristics, they are considered toxic elements.
    • Pyrophoricity: Many actinide metals, hydrides, carbides, alloys and other compounds may ignite at room temperature in a finely divided state, which would result from spontaneous combustion fires and spreading of radioactive contaminates.
    • Nuclear Criticality: If fissionable materials are combined, a chain reaction could occur resulting in lethal doses of radioactivity, but it depends on chemical form, isotopic composition, geometry, size of surroundings, etc.


Here´s another graph from data on decay of radioactivity of high level wastes.

High-level waste is the highly radioactive waste resulting from spent nuclear fuel from production or power reactors, as well as from the chemical processing of spent nuclear fuel and irradiated target assemblies. The radioactivity comes from fission fragments and their daughter products resulting from the fission of U235 in production reactors. Although radiation from short-lived fission products (fragments and their daughters) will decrease dramatically in the next hundred years, radiation risks associated with the long-lived products will remain high for thousands of years. In the initial decay period, most of the radioactivity is due to Cs-137, Sr-90, and their short-lived daughter products. Plutonium, americium, uranium, and their daughter products are the major contributors to long-term radioactivity (Figure 5). (Underlining is mine.)

Figure 5 – Radioactive Decay of High-level Waste from Reprocessing One Tonne of Spent Reactor Fuel. (Courtesy OECD NEA)

Nuclear Waste;Last updatedJun 5, 2019;

Here we are looking at over 10,000 years to reach the level in the original ore. To get the radioactivity from reprocessing 1 tonne of PWR fuel to about 100 GBq, it looks like about a million years.

Maybe future nuclear reactors will achieve this goal. 

The nuclear industry has a hard time distinguishing what they have planned and what they have.

Having said all that, I am certainly no expert. But I can read.  I am not surprised that there is a lot of confusion out there.  But, the nuclear industry seems intent on selling distorted views of the information to the public. That makes the public distrustful of “experts”, the “elites” in whom we should be able to put our trust. Yes, Ralph Nader has distorted information too.  (He´s got more than that to answer for.) But the answer is not to answer distortions with even more of the same.

As I´ve said before, it would be terrible if the nuclear industry had great news to tell someday, and nobody believed it. You reap what you sow.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 8, 2019 6:17 pm GMT

Mark, I said "hold in your hands", not "inhale", didn't I? It's not a good idea to inhale mercury or gasoline, either. If you're really worried about plutonium inhalation, you inhale hundreds of times more plutonium from weapons tests in the 1950s-1960s every day of your life. For avoiding that, your options are limited.

"The emission of radioactivity, toxicity, pyrophoricity, and nuclear criticality are properties that make them hazardous to handle."

That depends. I am at this moment holding in my hand a piece of uranium ore, with radioactivity in the range of 3,500-5000 counts per minute (CPM). The radiation is coming mostly from a very small area of the rock, it's high-energy gamma and beta radiation of the kind to which we're exposed 24/7 from background sources (including those weapons tests). It's in a plastic bag so I won't inhale dust from the rock - like drinking a cup of gasoline, it could be harmful.

Your graph shows a hypothetical curve for a hypothetical concentration of unvitrified nuclear waste, stored using techniques over two decades old, graphed on a logarithmic scale. Graphed on linear axes, nuclear waste decay looks very much like my graph above of Fukushima showing total radioactivity - like I said (attributing it to actinides or decay products is irrelevant). Your graph laughably illustrates how long spent nuclear fuel would take to return the radioactivity of the "original ore", apparently assuming somewhere along the way it will remix itself with the granite, shale, or sedimentary solids in which it was found.

"I am not surprised that there is a lot of confusion out there...but, the nuclear industry seems intent on selling distorted views of the information to the public."

Either that, or you're inherently distrustful of something you don't fully understand. You're trying, I'll give you credit for that. Now try harder.

onedit: There a misperception building and operating nuclear reactors, or selling uranium, is some enormously-profitable enterprise, that it forms the basis of some mythical "nuclear industry". But no, the majority of revenue for most reactor manufacturers (GE, Hitachi, Westinghouse) comes from sales of more pedestrian household products - flatscreen TVs, refrigerators, and the like.

In energy, the real money is in selling fuel, and because nuclear makes a lot of energy from very little fuel there's not that much money in it. Consuming fossil fuel, on the other hand, is a cash cow - and like a cow, there are plenty of emissions. So anyone who thinks profitability will help solve climate change is mistaken.

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