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Nuclear Refugee
Don Mosier | Rimini Road

The issue of how to store or move 1800 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Stations (SONGS) is back under discussion after a lawsuit by Citizens Oversight was upheld by a San Diego Superior Court judge earlier this year. The suit challenges the California Coastal Commission decision last year to issue a permit allowing 20 years of storage in dry casks on the SONGS site, and the process whereby the California Public Utilities Commission assigned ratepayers $3.3 billion of the total decommissioning costs of $4.7 billion. The parties have agreed to settlement talks before the case is to be heard in federal courts on July 14th.

The opponents to the current storage plan, which has many flaws (see below), hope that a way will be found to relocate the spent fuel rods to another location, such as Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant in Arizona, or a planned facility in West Texas. While that would get the nuclear waste away from the 8 million people living near SONGS, that plan also has many obstacles.

The flaws in the current storage plan are:

• Thin-walled stainless steel casks that are welded shut and cannot be inspected for leaks have been ordered. The casks are only certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for 20 years, and the current plan has them loaded by 2019 and not moved until 2050. Much thicker casks with built-in monitoring are used in Europe.
• The storage pad is 14 feet above sea level but only 4 feet above the current water table. Sea-level rise will decrease this small margin of safety in the next decades.
• Location, location, location. Next to ocean, earthquake faults, I-5 and the railway, not to mention billions of dollars of real estate.

The obstacles in the removal plan are:

• There are no certified transportation casks to transport the fuel rods to another location.
• Each loaded transport cask weighs 218 tons, which is much greater than the railway weight limit. The transport casks are like Russian dolls, with multiple layers protecting the still hot core.
• The railway infrastructure is old and in need of repair. There would need to be new bridges built just to reach the current load limit.
• The transfer of really hot fuel rods from the current casks to new transportation casks would have to be done underwater, but the cooling pools are scheduled for demolition as soon as all the fuel rods are removed in 2019.
• Palo Verde cannot accept more nuclear waste without NRC approval, and may not want it.
• Rick Perry and the Energy Department would have to accept the nuclear waste as soon as it is moved (whether to Texas or elsewhere).
• The federal government promised in 1984 to have a solution for nuclear waste within a decade. They are currently 33 years behind schedule.

Getting a fairer deal for ratepayers (you, SDG&E is 20% owner of SONGS) looks like an effort more likely to succeed, but the CPUC messed up once, and there is no guarantee they won’t do it again. Let’s hope the federal courts intervene with a better plan for both the storage problem and the cost allocation, but there is no quick and easy solution.



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