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San Onofre’s nuclear waste buried under the beach – the best example of the failure of the nuclear industry and its poor outlook for the future

A combination of failures:’ why 3.6m pounds of nuclear waste is buried on a popular California beach, Guardian, Kate Mishkin 24 Aug 21, 

The San Onofre reactors are among dozens across the United States phasing out, but experts say they best represent the uncertain future of nuclear energy.

It’s a combination of failures, really,”

Spent fuel is stored at 76 reactor sites in 34 states

It’s a self-reporting industry,” Hering, the retired rear admiral, said. “And they simply can’t be trusted.”


More than 2 million visitors flock each year to California’s San Onofre state beach, a dreamy slice of coastline just north of San Diego. The beach is popular with surfers, lies across one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the Unites States and has a 10,000-year-old sacred Native American site nearby. It even landed a shout-out in the Beach Boys’ 1963 classic Surfin’ USA.

But for all the good vibes and stellar sunsets, beneath the surface hides a potential threat: 3.6m lb of nuclear waste from a group of nuclear reactors shut down nearly a decade ago. Decades of political gridlock have left it indefinitely stranded, susceptible to threats including corrosion, earthquakes and sea level rise.

The San Onofre reactors are among dozens across the United States phasing out, but experts say they best represent the uncertain future of nuclear energy.

“It’s a combination of failures, really,” said Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the top federal enforcer, between 2009 and 2012, of the situation at San Onofre.

That waste is the byproduct of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs), three nuclear reactors primarily owned by the utility Southern California Edison (SCE).

Buried waste

Federal regulators had already cited SCE for several safety issues, including leaking radioactive waste and falsified firewatch records. But when a new steam generator began leaking a small amount of radioactivity in January 2012, just one year after it was replaced, it was SCE’s most serious problem yet. A subsequent report from the NRC’s inspector general found federal inspectors had overlooked red flags in 2009, and that SCE had replaced its own steam generators without proper approval. SCE tried to fix the problem but decided in 2013 to shut the plant down for good.Activists thought they had scored a victory when the reactor shut down – until they learned that the nuclear waste they had produced would remain on-site……

Without a government-designated place to store the waste, the California Coastal Commission in 2015 approved the construction of an installation at San Onofre to store it until 2035In August 2020, workers concluded the multi-year burial process, loading the last of 73 canisters of waste into a concrete enclosure.

San Onofre is not the only place where waste is left stranded. As more nuclear sites shut down, communities across the country are stuck with the waste left behind. Spent fuel is stored at 76 reactor sites in 34 states, according to the Department of Energy.

Handling those stockpiles has been an afterthought to the NRC, the federal enforcer, said Allison Macfarlane, another former commission chair.

“It was not a big topic at the NRC, unfortunately,” Macfarlane said. “In the nuclear industry in general the backend of the nuclear cycle gets very little attention. So it just never rises to ‘oh this is a very important issue, we should be doing something.’”

Plenty of risks, and not enough oversight

The waste is buried about 100ft from the shoreline, along the I-5 highway, one of the nation’s busiest thoroughfares, and not far from a pair of faults that experts say could generate a 7.4 magnitude earthquake.

Another potential problem is corrosion. In its 2015 approval, the Coastal Commission noted the site could have a serious impact on the environment down the line, including on coastal access and marine life. “The [installation] would eventually be exposed to coastal flooding and erosion hazards beyond its design capacity, or else would require protection by replacing or expanding the existing Songs shoreline armoring,” the document says.

Concerns have also been raised about government oversight of the site. Just after San Onofre closed, SCE began seeking exemptions from the NRC’s operating rules for nuclear plants. The utility asked and received permission to loosen rules on-site, including those dealing with record-keeping, radiological emergency plans for reactors, emergency planning zones and on-site staffing.

San Onofre isn’t the only closed reactor to receive exemptions to its operating licence. The NRC’s regulations historically focused on operating reactors and assumed that, when a reactor shut down, the waste would be removed quickly.

It’s true that the risk of accidents decreases when a plant isn’t operating, said Dave Lochbaum, former director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists. But adapting regulations through exemptions greatly reduces public transparency, he argued.

“Exemptions are wink-wink, nudge-nudge deals with the NRC,” he said.

In general, it’s not really a great practice,” former NRC chair Jaczko said about the exemptions. “If the NRC is regulating by exemption, it means that there’s something wrong with the rules … either the NRC believes the rules are not effective, and they’re not really useful, or the NRC is not holding the line where the NRC should be holding line,” he said.

Close calls

In 2015, the NRC tried unsuccessfully to revise its decommissioning rules and reduce the need for exemptions. But commissioners never acted, despite a 2019 Office of Inspector General audit that questioned whether the rule would ever see the light of day and that estimated that eliminating exemptions could save the NRC, utility and taxpayers about $19m for each reactor.

In general, it’s not really a great practice,” former NRC chair Jaczko said about the exemptions. “If the NRC is regulating by exemption, it means that there’s something wrong with the rules … either the NRC believes the rules are not effective, and they’re not really useful, or the NRC is not holding the line where the NRC should be holding line,” he said.

Meanwhile, at San Onofre, two close calls drew the ire of activists and townspeople. In 2018, workers found a loose piece of equipment in one of the canisters, causing a 10-day work stoppage to ensure the error didn’t pose a threat to the public. In a separate incident several months later, a canister filled with radioactive waste became wedged when employees were loading it into the ground and nearly dropped 18ft. The second incident was not made public until a whistleblower brought it up at a community event.

After these incidents, the NRC cited SCE for failing to ensure equipment was available to protect the canister from a drop, and failing to notify the NRC in a timely manner. In a memo, NRC staff told SCE it was “concerned about apparent weaknesses” in managing storage oversight. SCE was fined $116,000 but permitted to continue loading casks within one year.

Another concern is that the CEO of Holtec, the manufacturer of the canisters, told a 2014 community meeting that the canisters are difficult to repair. “It’s not practical to repair a canister if it were damaged,” Kris Singh said.

According to a plan the California Coastal Commission approved in July 2020, SCE will also inspect two of the 73 buried canisters every five years, and a test canister every two and a half years, starting in 2024.

But critics say they are not confident SCE would self-report given the utility’s record. “It’s a self-reporting industry,” Hering, the retired rear admiral, said. “And they simply can’t be trusted.”……….. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/24/san-onofre-nuclear-power-plant-radioactive-waste-unsafe

September 9, 2021 - Posted by | Reference, USA, wastes

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