Stab Magazine | Nuclear Waste Officially Gets A Beachfront Residence In San Clemente
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Nuclear Waste Officially Gets A Beachfront Residence In San Clemente

Is this the beginning of the end? 

news // Feb 24, 2018
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

One bullet fired, 72 left in the chamber. While an idle ocean and north winds have lured us into complacency, Southern California Edison has begun burying nuclear waste 100 feet from the beach at San Onofre.

It’s happening. There are massive cranes. There are canisters under tarps on the bluff, heavily armed Private Security chasing people off.

And for the foreseeable future, nuclear waste will be sitting a stone’s throw from one of the most utilized surf breaks in the world.

There are 3.6 million pounds of “spent nuclear fuel assemblies” on site at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). A third of it was transferred to a “horizontal dry storage system” in 2003. The rest is sitting in cooling ponds in the “boobs.”

Those cooling ponds were never designed to be a long-term storage solution, which is where the canisters come in.

With the waste contained in 73 canisters (it takes five to seven years to bring it down to a temperature where it can be transported), the eventual goal is to move it all somewhere safer. Meanwhile, the U.S. federal government has completely failed in its efforts to find a permanent location to store this stuff.

“Not in my backyard,” is the common utterance, and until a permanent fix is identified and built, San Clemente’s stuck with it.

There are two types of dry storage containers: “thick-walled” and “thin-walled” casks. One of the main concerns is that Edison is using thin-walled casks to store the waste, as thick-walled casks are more expensive and most commonly used internationally, while the thin-walled option is less expensive…and considered more precarious.

“Thick-walled casks have better early-warning systems, including pressure sensors, and also hold spent nuclear fuel assemblies in steel casks that are up to 2-feet thick,” explains the Surfrider Foundation. “Alternatively, thin-walled casks use a sealed steel canister to hold spent nuclear fuel assemblies. The canister’s steel is less than 1-inch thick but is placed in another (though not sealed) steel “cavity enclosure canister,” and surrounded by 1-2 feet of concrete.

The process to move the nuclear waste began in earnest on January 31. Edison has since completed loading the first canister into a concrete storage unit located frighteningly close to both the shoreline and a fault line.

ISFSI Pad

Via the Surfrider Foundation: Outdoor partially buried thin-cask dry storage “facility” at San Onofre, thin-casks placed in a partially buried concrete “monolith”. Note – system is only partially buried due to close proximity to water table. (Photo by CEP)

There are 72 remaining canisters to fill. Edison expects it to take seven days per container, making this a year-and-a-half endeavor.

Of course, Edison doesn’t want anybody to know they’re doing this.

Earlier this week a notable surfer in the San Clemente community was on his way into San Onofre, when he and saw the cranes, trucks and large canisters covered in green sheets. He pulled over to the side of the road, called and left a couple voicemails to journalists and in that time a security detail came up behind him.

Two security officers approached his vehicle from either side, fully armed with bullet-proof vests and tactical gear. They told him to leave immediately even though he wasn’t in a “No Parking” zone. He explained how he was just making a phone call because in California it’s illegal to drive and talk on the phone.

They weren’t buying it.

He felt compelled to leave immediately and expressed that had he not done so the situation could have gotten very serious very quickly.

A CBS News team had a similar experience when they went down to report on the developments. An unidentified guard told the team, “You guys are at your own risk being in this area. It’s your own risk, radiation risk.”

“Edison started the transfer of spent nuclear fuel from cooling pools to the Holtec dry storage ‘unit,’” Katie Day, a Staff Scientist for the Surfrider Foundation, explained to Stab.”I believe the first transfer was completed at the beginning of this month, which started the 1.5-year process until all waste will be transferred. Of course, Surfrider is opposed to the long-term storage of nuclear waste on the beach. We have been actively advocating at the federal level to get the waste off-site as soon as possible. We’ve also been in discussions with Edison to request that they take all possible safety precautions during the process of transferring and storing waste.”  

“Millions of pounds of highly radioactive plutonium, uranium and other deadly radionuclides are currently being transported from pools to dry storage at San Onofre, without any means of dealing with an accident,” Gary Headrick, head of San Clemente Green, told Stab. “The precarious loading and unloading process, taking five days per canister, will continue well into 2019.

Each of the canisters will hold as much radiation as was released in the Chernobyl accident and weather patterns would create a plume extending far across our nation, this matter should be one of the federal government’s top priorities.

When it comes to matters of safety, Edison only speaks in terms of probability, not potential consequences. Unfortunately, the crystal ball they rely on for such unpredictable events has failed them consistently in the past.”

It’s worth reiterating that so far there is no viable location to permanently store the nuclear waste and no viable solution for containing a leaky canister.

Meanwhile, the canisters have a lifespan of approximately 20 years, before they start potentially cracking.

“Nuclear waste [should be] the number one environmental issue in the U.S. and there’s so little notice of the negative side effects,” Ian “Kanga” Cairns explained to Stab. He’s one of the few surfers really trying to do something about the situation. “San O is just one of 60 similar circumstances around the U.S., but it’s ours and we need to be sure that everything possible is being done to make it safe.”

One canister’s in the ground. The clock’s now ticking.

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