Coalition Aims to Prod US Government on San Onofre Nuclear Waste Removal

March 20, 2021 Updated: March 23, 2021

A newly formed “coalition of stakeholders” is calling on the federal government to get serious about removing millions of pounds of radioactive waste from a closed nuclear power plant on Southern California’s coast.

Doug Bauder, vice president and chief nuclear officer for Southern California Edison (SCE), told The Epoch Times that the coalition wants to see real action—including funds appropriated in next year’s federal budget—to expedite the nuclear waste removal process from the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

“We think that a separate nuclear waste program should be formed under the federal government because simply what’s happening now under the DOE [Department of Energy] umbrella has not worked,” Bauder said March 16. “I can tell you already the coalition formation has been substantial.”

The Action for Spent Fuel Solutions Now group includes local government officials and business leaders in Orange and San Diego counties who want to see the spent nuclear fuel moved away from heavily populated coastal cities to a more permanent storage facility. The coalition blames federal agencies, including the DOE, for delaying plans to remove the radioactive waste from nuclear reactors across the United States for more than 20 years.

Bauder said the coalition can’t solve the problem alone, “but we have formed this alliance, and we’re going to join forces with advocates for better legislation.”

“We really think this is the way to put the appropriate pressure on the federal government and the administration to take action. We want a diverse coalition of stakeholders. We feel that’s what’s going to be needed to move federal and state legislators to make the right decisions,” he said.

San Onofre is one of 14 nuclear power plants set to be decommissioned in the United States. The twin nuclear reactor power plant sits on 84 acres in northern San Diego County leased to SCE by the U.S. Navy. Currently, the spent nuclear fuel is securely stored in 123 sealed stainless-steel canisters that are housed in reinforced concrete structures and certified safe for at least another 80 years, according to SCE.

“We’re specifically saying federal action is needed so that we can fully decommission the station, restore the land, and return it to the U.S. Navy,” Bauder said.

SCE, a subsidiary of Edison International, owns a 78 percent stake in the San Onofre plant, while San Diego Gas & Electric and the city of Riverside own about 20 percent and 2 percent, respectively. When the San Onofre plant was shut down in 2012, it was providing enough power for about 1.5 million homes.

Bauder said he understands that long delays in the decommissioning process are “a little bit infuriating” for the average resident, but the spent nuclear fuel has to be removed before the task can be completed.

“You know, it’s our obligation to restore the environment here, and we can’t do that. We can do part of it. We’re tearing down the structures that are basically above ground and we’re doing a whole lot of remediation there, and that’s a lot of work,” he said.

Frustrated Residents

Ultimately, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to take possession of the nuclear waste and dispose of it, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told The Epoch Times.

“The residents of South Orange County—San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point, plus all of the north county cities in San Diego County—are extremely frustrated, and they have an absolute right to be frustrated,” Bartlett said.

The supervisor, who is co-chair and founding member of the coalition, lives in Dana Point, not far from San Onofre.

“I’m very concerned. I mean, I live right in the 10-mile hot zone radius,” she said. “This is an issue that I was working on from 2006 to 2014 when I was on the Dana Point City Council, and I’ve been working on it for six years now as a county supervisor. It is very frustrating for everyone involved here not to be able to get to a solution.”

Bartlett said decisive action from Congress and the Biden administration is needed to make the SONGS decommissioning a priority.

“We have an active military base with Camp Pendleton, and this entire region down there only has one freeway, the Interstate 5, so it’s not like we have a lot of options if there’s an emergency,” she said.

“I’m very hopeful that this administration, hearing from a very strong coalition of bipartisan support, will work with us to help solve this issue. It’s going to require some enabling legislation that would accomplish several things,” including funding, selecting storage sites, and approving a plan to transport the spent nuclear fuel.

Bartlett especially hopes Vice President Kamala Harris will take notice.

“Because she is from California, I think she’ll take a very keen interest in assisting our efforts,” she said. “I’m sure her plate is very full right now, but I can tell you in the very near future, we hope to flag this to not only our local representatives in Congress, but also to key people in the Biden administration.”

It will be up to both the Orange and San Diego County boards to approve new action plans, she said. “The two counties are now banding together, along with some other very significant partners—with San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and other very key stakeholders.”

A New Set of Plans

SCE has released a fresh set of plans to remove the spent nuclear fuel from SONGS. The reports, prepared by North Wind consultants with input from Edison experts, include action, strategic, and conceptual transportation plans.

The strategic plan looks at feasibility options for relocating the nuclear waste, the transportation plan details how to safely ship the spent fuel canisters by rail, and the action plan covers the steps SCE intends to take to ensure the canisters are ready to move when the time comes, Bauder said.

“What we wanted was sort of a one-stop shop for all the work,” he said. “Think of it as a funnel. Every available option was reviewed, and a lot of thought was put into what are the best options to pursue … so that others can keep the plan moving throughout the years, so that we don’t have to go back and reinvent it.”

The plans indicate the time frame for removing the spent nuclear fuel could take 20 years—if the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses temporary “consolidated interim storage” sites in New Mexico or Texas.

SCE spokesman John Dobken told The Epoch Times the company’s planned timeline would fully decommission the site by 2051.

“That’s why interim storage facilities seem much more feasible, to fit into that time frame, to relocate fuel from SONGS to a location like that while a permanent federal repository is being developed,” Dobken said.

Bauder said the ideal solution would be for the federal government to decide on a permanent repository site. But, he added, “in no way does it dilute our commitment to safely storing the fuel here. We will do that as long as we need to.”

A Decades-Old Problem

The DOE has been contractually bound to begin removing waste from commercial reactors since 1998. However, there’s still no permanent federal nuclear waste repository, although utility customers have sunk billions into the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for it.

Plans to ship nuclear waste to the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project on federal land adjacent to the Nevada Test Site—where nuclear bombs were tested in the 1950s—imploded after Western Shoshone Native American tribes opposed it. The site is located in Nye County, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.

Former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) strongly opposed the Yucca Mountain project, which was approved by Congress in 2002. President Barack Obama’s administration pulled federal funding for it in April 2011.

That same month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in a report that the shutdown was not made for safety reasons, and could delay the opening of a nuclear waste repository by more than two decades and cost billions of dollars.

Representatives for the DOE didn’t immediately respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.

More than $10 billion was spent on Yucca Mountain. Dobken confirmed about $43 billion remains in the fund for a repository, including about $1 billion from SCE customers once served by the San Onofre plant.

Although Yucca Mountain isn’t off the table, Bauder said it’s highly unlikely that the project will be revived. He said that a permanent repository should be built in a place where the surrounding communities welcome it and understand the reasons for it.

“So all those things are important when we start talking about storing fuel. Certainly, there’s no reason to think that one is not as safe as the other,” Bauder said.

The only remaining operating nuclear plant in California is the Diablo Canyon facility in San Luis Obisbo. The plant, owned by Pacific Gas & Electric, is set to close by 2025. The state now prohibits new nuclear generation.