'A combination of failures:' why 3.6m pounds of nuclear waste is buried on a popular California beach

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Leroy N. Soetoro

Aug 30, 2021, 4:28:25 PM8/30/21
The San Onofre nuclear power plant shut down years ago – but residents and
experts worry what will happen with the waste left behind


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

“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.

Buried waste
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).

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

That wasn’t supposed to be the case. Under the US Nuclear Waste Policy Act
of 1982, the federal government was to move waste into a centralized,
remote federal facility starting in 1998. In 2002, George W Bush approved
Yucca Mountain, a site about 100 miles from Las Vegas, as a permanent
underground nuclear waste repository. But in 2010, the Obama
administration scrapped the controversial plan.

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 2035. In 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

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

“The problem you have here is that the NRC is simply not doing its job as
a regulator. So what it has done is allowed the industry to basically
determine the conditions under which this material is stored on a
temporary basis across the country,” echoed retired Rear Admiral Len
Hering, who served more than 30 years in the US navy and was awarded a
2005 presidential award for leadership in federal energy management from
President George W Bush.

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

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

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.

Singh walked that statement back last September, but questions remain as
to what San Onofre would do if a canister did indeed appear damaged.

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.”

Thinking about ‘how systems will fail’
Holtec did not responded to requests for comment for this story.

In an email, a spokesman for the NRC declined to comment on the 2018
incidents at San Onofre, and said that possible accidents are
significantly fewer than at an operating reactor.

“The NRC has thoroughly reviewed this issue and believes that the spent
fuel can be stored safely on site at San Onofre. It can’t be moved off
site because there is no federally approved disposal site for high-level
waste, although we are currently reviewing two applications for interim
storage facilities in west Texas and New Mexico,” the spokesman said.

Al Bates, manager of regulatory affairs at San Onofre, said there was a
probability that incidents “manmade or by Mother Nature” might happen at
San Onofre. But if they do, he said, there would be little impact on
public safety.

“The fact of the matter is, there’s, yes, it’s high-level nuclear waste.
But, yes, the technologies that we’re using are extremely robust for any
possible scenarios,” he said.

He also disputed that the exemption process leaves the public out of the
process, noting that requests are public record and that SCE adds
information about decommissioning to its website and through a community

“It’s an open book,” Bates said. “We’re not trying to get away with
anything. We’re doing the same thing that other utilities have done to
rightsize regulations around the true nature of decommissioning and the
fact that decommissioning is a much lower risk to the public … therefore
regulations have to correctly acknowledge that.”

“We have no motivation to hide anything. As a matter of fact, if you want
to lose your job in nuclear power try to hide something – you’ll never
work in nuclear power again,” said Randall Granaas, senior nuclear
engineer at San Onofre.

John Dobken, spokesperson for Songs, also stressed that the waste is
stored safely, but said the right thing to do would be to relocate the
waste off-site – a decision only the government can make.

“It’s important to know there are some who want to make this about fear
and it shouldn’t be about fear,” he said. “It should be about doing the
right thing, and the right thing is about relocating the spent fuel from
an interim storage site and eventually into a geological repository, and
that’s what we’re working towards.”

However, many of these potential problems might have been avoided, Jaczko
said, if SCE had considered another location for its fuel, instead of
leaving it on the reactor site, or if it had more adequately consulted
with the community.

“I think that a better solution could be had with a little bit more work.
And it wasn’t done and now it’s created this very polarized community that
has strong concerns about what’s being done and doesn’t feel like they’re
being listened to. And they’re not,” he said.

It’s worth considering how things fail, though, argued Rod Ewing, nuclear
security professor at Stanford University’s center for international
security and cooperation, and author of a 2021 report about spent nuclear
waste that focuses on San Onofre.

“The problem with our safety analysis approach is we spend a lot of time
proving things are safe. We don’t spend much time imagining how systems
will fail,” he said. “And I think the latter is what’s most important.”

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