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The San Onofre Nuclear Waste Threat, Explained

THE PLAYGROUND

San Onofre State Park is among the Top 5 most visited in California. It's the birthplace of California surf culture, and home to more than 2.5 million visitors a year. Surfers from all over the world make the trek here to ride California's world-famous surf breaks that produce quality waves year-round. Just a short hike north of San Onofre is Trestles, California's most popular high-performance surfing playground, home to national amateur championship tournaments and elite World Surf League Championship Tour (CT) events. It's the hotbed of Southern California's surf scene.

Just another day for Trestles. Just north of San Onofre is the long right points of Trestles, some of the most sought-after waves in Southern California. WSL / Jimmy Wilson

For the past 30 years the state park and its surrounding areas have been fiercely guarded by environmentalists, and for good reason. It's the last piece of accessible open space along the Southern California coast. Located on the border of Orange and San Diego counties, these popular surf spots have been prized destinations since the early 1930s, long before the arrival of Camp Pendleton or the San Onofre Nuclear Power Generating Station (SONGS). While surfers had zero political power in the pre-park era, in mid-2008, the Surfrider Foundation led a coalition of environmental groups that rallied successfully to prevent a controversial toll road from cutting through both the park and the delicate San Mateo watershed. The battle continued until late last year, when a settlement was reached between the Transportation Corridor Agency, and a collection of environmental agencies and the attorney general's office of California. The settlement creates a 28-million dollar habitat restoration fund for the Trestles area. The groups declared victory with headlines like "Trestles Saved Forever!". But a far larger threat looms, and it hasn't received anywhere near the amount of attention it deserves from those organizations.

the proposed home of 3.6 tons of nuclear waste If the current plan goes through, radioactive waste will be buried under the bluffs at San Onofre in a concrete slab. WSL / SanClementeGreen.org

THE DILEMMA

There's a plan to bury over 3.5 million pounds of radioactive waste (spent fuel) less than 200 yards from the shoreline at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). While Southern California Edison (SCE) is insisting that their solution is safe, local watchdog groups are sounding alarms about the canisters that will hold the radioactive fuel, which has a half-life of 70,000 years. While the canisters are guaranteed for 25 years, the concrete structures they'll be stored in are only good for 10, and if those structures fail then the guarantee on the cannisters is voided. Yet the California Coastal Commission (CCC) unanimously approved the utility company's plan to store the spent fuel rods in these containers -- which are just 5/8 of an inch thick. (By contrast, most other countries use thick wall casks 10" to 19 3/4" thick.) Not only that, but the CCC has given Edison 20 years to come up with a plan for the canisters to be inspected, repaired, maintained, monitored, and transported without cracks.

"Most people would be astonished to know that's not already the case," Gary Headrick, of San Clemente Green, whose group is acting as the local watchdog, wrote to his subscribers. "This seems to be the easiest and most obvious argument for rescinding the permit. It should never have been granted in the first place."

The Wall A closer look at the wall currently protecting the storage facility from rising seas and tidal waves. WSL / Gary Headrick

In terms of a geological time scale, cynics' big concern is that we're about to pour radioactive waste into cola cans, bury them in shifting sand next to a rising sea, and by the time they start leaking -- not if they leak, but when -- they will be impossible to move. But perhaps even more shocking, according to some watchdog groups, is that if a disaster were to occur, FEMA is exempt from responding, the job would fall on local San Diego County responders who are nowhere near prepared for such an event.

Given Southern California Edison's history of bad predictions about safety and reliability, there's plenty of reason to be fearful. Obviously, removing the spent fuel would be a much better option. That was, after all, the original plan. However, SCE would need to find an authorized, licensed destination for spent fuel before it could be moved. At the moment no such destination exists. The Department of Energy does have a contractual obligation to take possession of the spent fuel, but their permanent storage solution was put on ice in 2010, and there's been zero movement since.

Containers are guaranteed for 10 years, which will supposedly get us to 2027. Critics claim the canisters responsible for holding the waste aren't nearly as secure as they should be. WSL / CitizensOversight.org

THE BACKSTORY

This nuclear waste at San Onofre, like all other waste from America's 99 active nuclear reactors, was intended to go into long-term storage at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a remote patch of empty desert 150 miles north of Las Vegas. It's adjacent to where underground nuclear weapons tests have taken place in the past. The Yucca Mountain project was the result of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which called for a permanent storage solution for all the nation's spent fuel from commercial power plants. The search dragged on slowly for five years, but after the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Russia, congress finally pressed hard for a decision. Yucca Mountain was chosen for its geohydrology, geochemistry, rock characteristics, tectonics, meteorology, costs and socioeconomic impacts. In the 25 years that followed, more than 15 billion dollars was spent building a facility capable of storing waste for one million years. It includes more than seven miles of tunnels, alcoves, and boreholes. Naturally, opposition to it has been strong, and the litigation has been non-stop, delaying the accepting of waste that was supposed to start in 1998, almost two decades ago.

By 2006, after multiple environmental reviews and tests, it was dubbed the most studied piece of real estate on earth. But the opposing voices kept fighting, claiming that the reviews were rushed and the construction shoddy. In 2010, with Nevada's senior Senator Harry Reid in the powerful position of Majority Leader, the Obama administration had the remaining permits for the project pulled, and completion was halted. Yucca Mountain has been sitting empty and fenced off ever since. As a result, 61 power stations that are home to some 99 reactors across 30 states are being forced to bury waste in their own backyards. And the unexpected closure of the SONGS plant in 2012 has only heightened the urgency for a more long-term solution. While there are 50 canisters of waste already in dry cask storage, 70 percent of the current waste is still sitting in cooling pools, which is far from safe.

The Department of Energy's 30 year project. The Yucca Mountain project was the federal government's master plan for permanent storage of nuclear waste. But construction was halted in 2010. WSL / Department of Energy

THE RISKS ARE REAL

Cooling pools are a massive risk, and we've been living with them at San Onofre for more than 40 years. But due to the lack of a national solution these pools are now full, which is why a temporary solution is needed. That said, placing the highly radioactive spent fuel in thin metal casks and burying them in cement atop bluffs that are already eroding is also a disaster in the making, especially when there are no independent regulators in place to verify these containers are being inspected, repaired and maintained. There are serious concerns that once these 50-ton casks are buried they're nearly impossible to move, especially if they were to crack. A Fukushima-like calamity at San Onofre is a risk nobody wants to take, but it's there. Aside from erosion, there's an earthquake fault line just off the coast, and with more than 8.4 million people living in a 50-mile vicinity, it's also a perfect target for a potential attack. With the closure of Yucca Mountain, not surprisingly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's most recent response has been to load up on guns and ammunition to defend these very sensitive sites. "This nuclear waste, at this site, is as vulnerable a target as you could possibly have for terrorists," says Michael Aguirre, a San Diego consumer attorney who's behind a lawsuit trying to get the waste removed.

San Onofre There are more than 8.4 million people who live within the contamination zone if things go wrong at SONGS. WSL

THE LAWSUITS

While the Surfrider Foundation has released a statement about the San Onofre dilemma, they've refused to take part in any litigation. Aguirre, meanwhile, has been leading the fight on behalf of Citizens Oversight, which claims in its lawsuit that the California Coastal Commission was wrong in October of 2015 to approve the storage of waste in casks on eroding bluffs above the water. "The Coastal Commission's vote to approve a permit for a permanent waste dump just 100 feet from the beach is an outrageous departure from its chartered responsibilities and the California Coastal Act."

The California Coastal Commission fought to get the suit tossed out, and they had support from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, but in November of 2016 Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes denied the request, citing the severe environmental risks. If the California Coastal Commission approval is denied, there will be no other option but to find another location to store the casks. Citizens Oversight's plan was to argue that the waste should be moved to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, roughly 50 miles west of Phoenix. Southern California Edison owns 15.8 percent stake in the Arizona plant, which produces more energy than any other in the nation. However, SCE officials claim that's not an option. Not only is Palo Verde not permitted to store fuel from other reactors, they also use a different storage design. Naturally, the people of Arizona would have their say, too. Other options being floated as possible alternatives are the many military installations where weapons waste is stored.

"Right now we're doing all we can to support local watch dogs like San Onofre Safety, San Clemente Green and Citizens Oversight," says Dr. Chad Nelson, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation. "They're the ones leading the charge on keeping Southern California Edison accountable. With our scale, our goal put pressure on our national leaders to come up with a sustainable solution to the larger problem. One thing we all agree on is the need for an independent review panel to be established that can make sure all safety standards are being met in the near term."

Sebastian Zietz eliminated during his Round 2 heat due to an interference. The world's best surfers flock to this stretch of San Diego County every year, drawing in thousands of fans. WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

THE LATEST

The hope is progress can be made at San Onofre, and there are signs that's happening. The scheduled trial date of April 14th was delayed after all parties asked for a continuance in order to try to reach a settlement that would involve moving the waste. The parties involved in these talks are Aguirre and Maria Severson on behalf of, on one side, the plaintiffs, Southern California Edison, the majority owner of SONGS, and on the other, the state attorney general, representing the California Coastal Commission. They have been given until early July to come up with a plan that works for all sides. Seeing it through is the next step, and holding all parties accountable is part of that process.

Meanwhile more than 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel around the country is waiting for a permanent storage solution. Several energy companies are suing the federal government to complete their permanent solution, and they've already collected billions. By 2022 that number could reach 22 billion. Meanwhile, states like Texas are suing the Federal Government to force a new vote on Yucca Mountain. The project, however, is likely to be buried in litigation for years to come, just as any new site would be, which is why 10-year dry cask solutions are nowhere near workable for San Onofre.

Kelly Slater draws off the bottom during Round 1 of the Hurley Pro. 11x World Champion Kelly Slater has a long relationship with Trestles. He won his first pro contest there back in 1990, and 25 years later he's still one of the best. WSL / Sean Rowland

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Call all of your legislators and demand that they move this waste to a safe permanent storage facility so it doesn't become somebody else's problem. (Calls are far more effective than emails.) Do your own research, and keep up with local news outlets, watchdog groups, and environmental organizations covering this ongoing story. Question everyone (including us). Attend the next meeting of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel (SCE's outreach arm), scheduled for Thursday, May 11, at the Laguna Hills Community Center, and be prepared to press them for details.

Local and federal representatives to contact:

San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Tim Brown 949-361-8332 cityhall@san-clemente.org

Representative Darrell Issa 760-599-1178 https://issa.house.gov/contact

Representative Dana Rohrabacher 714-960-6483 https://rohrabacher.house.gov/contact/email-me

State Senator Pat Bates 949-598-5850 http://lcmspubcontact.lc.ca.gov

Senator Dianne Feinstein 310-914-7300 www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/e-mail-me

Senator Kamala Harris 202-224-3553 www.harris.senate.gov/content/contact-senator

Assembly Member William Brough 949-347-7301 http://billbrough.org/contact/

The WSL will continue to update this story as news breaks.

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