By Sarah Mosko
SoCalWaterWars, Aug 19, 2021
E-The Environmental Magazine, Aug 19, 2021
Irvine Community News & Views, Aug 23, 2021
Times of San Diego, Sept 4, 2021
OB Rag, Sept 8, 2021
Fullerton Observer, Sept 9. 2021
Voice of OC, Sept 16, 2021
If you live in Orange or San Diego County, hopefully you’re aware of plans to allow San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) to remain a nuclear waste dump for the foreseeable future. Regardless of your global location, you’re wise to be tracking domestic and foreign moves to increase reliance on nuclear energy.
Three quarters of a century ago the United States ushered in the atomic age by dropping a uranium bomb on Hiroshima and a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. We now have 3.6 million pounds of these and other lethal radioactive elements sitting on the beach at SONGS in temporary canisters, scheduled to remain here indefinitely.
While the world might be waking up to the urgency of the climate crisis, no one has figured out how to safely dispose of deadly nuclear waste. Yet, the United States and the world propose to create more of it by extending the life of nuclear power plants and building new ones. Has the world learned nothing from the catastrophes of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?
SONGS is now a nuclear waste dump
Since the permanent closure of SONGS in 2013, controversy has swirled around the quality and location of the dry waste storage systems selected by the plant’s operator, Southern California Edison (SCE).
As is true of all U.S.’s nuclear plants, SONGS wasn’t designed for nuclear waste storage after decommissioning. The Nuclear Waste Act of 1982 mandated construction of a deep geological repository to store the nation’s spent fuel for the hundreds of thousands of years it remains deadly. However, as hopes for a repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain collapsed out of concern about groundwater contamination, talk turned to creating “interim” storage sites in Texas and New Mexico, though those states are balking at the prospect too.
The current reality, as stated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), is that a repository might never materialize. Consequently, nuclear plants are saddled with storing spent fuel onsite indefinitely, making the robustness of dry storage systems critical to public safety.
As of last August, all of SONGS’s spent fuel was transferred from cooling pools into 123 dry storage canisters, each with the potential to release as much highly radioactive Cesium-137 as was released during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
SONGS’s canisters are from two manufacturers: Holtec and AREVA. Both are thin-walled (5/8 inch) stainless steel and welded-shut and consequently susceptible to “stress corrosion cracking” from environmental conditions, including moist salty air. Importantly, neither is designed for safe maintenance, inspection, storage or transport.
The risk of through-wall cracking in the types of canisters at SONGS was assigned “#1 Priority” in a 2019 Department of Energy report. The potential consequences of cracks are far worse than small radiation releases into the atmosphere: Canisters are filled with helium expressly to limit corrosion and prevent explosions triggered by air or water getting inside.
Contrast this with bolted-shut thick-walled (10-19 inches) casks used in most countries (including Japan where thick casks survived the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami). Thick casks aren’t susceptible to stress corrosion cracking and are designed for maintenance, inspection, storage and transport.
As a waste storage location, SONGS is among the riskiest. Situated 108 feet from the shoreline and in an earthquake zone, it’s vulnerable to destructive seismic land shifts and tsunamis. Photographs show waves already splashing near the top of the seawall at high tides.
Climate-induced sea level rise will eventually threaten the Holtec canisters which already sit only 18 inches above groundwater.
If the cooling air vents which surround the canisters become blocked by sand, water, salt or other debris, clearing the vents quickly might be impossible. Air cooling could cease, and even Holtec admits that within a few days the temperatures exceed 1000°F, near the maximum temperature the canisters can withstand.
Also disturbing is the canisters’ vulnerability to terrorist attacks. They’re stored in the wide open, easy target for crashing airplanes or weapons launched from ships or nearby parking areas.
Pleas from nuclear safety advocates to transfer the radioactive waste into safer thick casks have been rebuffed by both SCE and the NRC.
Nuclear extensions and expansions
U.S.’s nuclear reactors were originally licensed for 25 to 40 years of operation. That NRC has granted operating extensions up to 60 years to several dozen reactors raises concerns about worn-out components and outdated operating systems.
Kalene Walker is a concerned Orange County resident who researches the nuclear waste storage problem. In a response to her inquiry asking if there are critical parts of reactors that can’t ever be inspected, Dr. Allen Hiser (NRC’s Senior Technical Advisor for License Renewal Aging Management) admitted that some components can’t be inspected because of inaccessibility or high radiation hazard. Examples are reactor vessel parts below the reactor core.
Though Hiser suggests inferring the condition of uninspectable components by sampling similar inspectable parts, this cannot eliminate risks when no one can know when uninspectable components might fail.
Nuclear energy is neither renewable nor sustainable, and it costs more now than solar or wind energy.
With the nuclear waste problem completely unsolved, it’s appalling that 50 new nuclear reactors are under construction globally. In the U.S., 24 applications to build new reactors have been submitted since 2007. And, The American Nuclear Infrastructure Bill just reintroduced in the Senate in July aims to preserve existing and expand new nuclear energy and has bipartisan support.
Creating more U.S. nuclear plants and deadly waste is insane when we can’t guarantee the safety of either existing aging plants or the 80,000+ metric tons of spent fuel already generated. The argument that nuclear is needed to address global warming reflects the same foolhardy mindset – ignoring adverse long-term impacts for short-term gains – that created the climate crisis in the first place.
We mustn’t kick the radioactive nuclear waste can down the road any longer. It’s time to tackle the problem head-on.