1,800 tons of radioactive waste has an ocean view and nowhere to go

The massive, 150-ton turbines have stopped spinning. 

The mile-long cooling pipes that extend into the Pacific will likely become undersea relics. High voltage that once energized the homes of more than a million Californians is down to zero.

But the San Onofre nuclear power plant will loom for a long time as a landmark, its 1,800 tons of lethal radioactive waste stored on the edge of the Pacific and within sight of the busy 5 Freeway.

Across the site, deep pools of water and massive concrete casks confine high-power gamma radiation and other forms of radioactivity emitted by 890,000 spent fuel rods that nobody wants there.

And like the other 79,000 tons of spent fuel spread across the nation, San Onofre’s nuclear waste has nowhere to go.

The nation’s inability to find a permanent home for the dangerous byproduct of its 50-year-adventure in nuclear energy represents one of the biggest and longest running policy failures in federal government history.

Now, the Trump administration and Congress are proposing a fast track fix. The new plan aims, after decades of delays, to move the waste to one or more temporary central storage sites that would hold it until a geologic repository can be built in Nevada or somewhere else.

But the new strategy faces many of the same challenges that have dogged past efforts, leaving some experts doubtful that it can succeed.

The shuttered San Onofre facility — not withstanding its overlook of prime surf breaks — is similar to about a dozen other former nuclear power plants nationwide that now have to babysit waste to prevent natural disasters, human errors or terrorist plots from causing an environmental or health catastrophe.

Though utilities and government regulators say such risks are remote, they have inflamed public fear at least since 1979’s Three Mile Island reactor accident in Pennsylvania.

The sites are located on the scenic shores of northern Lake Michigan, along a bucolic river in Maine, on the high plateau of Colorado and along the densely populated Eastern Seaboard — each environmentally sensitive for different reasons.

No one wants that waste near them — including officials in the sleepy beach town of San Clemente, just north of San Onofre. Even Southern California Edison Co. officials, while insisting the waste is safe, agree it should be moved as soon as possible.

“It doesn’t make any sense to store the fuel at all these sites,” said Thomas Palmisano, chief nuclear officer at the Southern California Edison plant. “The public doesn’t want the spent fuel here. Well, the fuel is here.”

But every attempt to solve the problem almost instantly gets tangled in complex federal litigation and imposes enormous expense on taxpayers.

The Energy Department was legally bound to haul away the waste by 1998 under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, making the agency about 20 years late in fulfilling its promise. That has saddled utilities with multibillion-dollar costs to store the waste onsite.

As a result, every nuclear utility, including Southern California Edison, has sued to recover its waste storage costs. So far, they have won judgments and settlements of $6.1 billion, and the Energy Department has projected that it may be liable for up to $25 billion more.

But the new plan is fraught with complex legal, political and financial questions, and has yet to be fully defined or vetted among powerful interest groups or receive approval by Congress or survive inevitable court challenges.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee last week overwhelmingly approved legislation that could clear up many legal questions. Similar bills have been introduced in recent years and failed to move ahead, but this legislation has strong bipartisan support and is backed by the White House.

Still, a lot could go wrong with the plan, as it has for every plan for decades.

Two little-known privately held companies, New Jersey-based Holtec International and Texas-based WCS, have unveiled plans and begun licensing applications with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for interim storage sites on each side of the New Mexico-Texas border. Officials in the area, a booming center of oil production, are enthusiastic about the potential economic benefits. And nuclear utilities have offered encouragement.

Company officials and other proponents say such temporary dumps could be opened in as little as three or four years, assuming the licensing goes smoothly. But other nuclear waste experts expect a timetable of 10 to 15 years for a temporary dump and much longer for a permanent repository.

Two dozen antinuclear activist groups and leading environmental nonprofits already have signaled in letters to the NRC that they will dispute the idea of creating temporary consolidated storage sites.

The groups, along with many longtime nuclear waste technical experts, worry that temporary storage will weaken the government’s resolve to build a permanent repository. And they assert the plan would require transporting the fuel twice, first to the temporary site and then to a permanent dump, magnifying transportation costs and the fuel’s exposure to accidents or attacks by terrorists.

“These trains hauling nuclear waste would go right by Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas,” said Marta Adams, a now-retired deputy attorney general in Nevada who is consulting with the state on its renewed legal battle.

Read the entire article at LATimes.com