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County joins coalition to move nuclear waste from San Onofre

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, viewed from San Onofre State Beach in October 2019.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, viewed from San Onofre State Beach in October 2019.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Group will lobby federal government to find a site and get canisters out.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has joined a coalition headed by Southern California Edison, the operator of the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, to lobby for federal government action to find an avenue to remove 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste from the plant.

The board Tuesday, Aug. 17, voted 5-0 to allocate as much as $100,000 to participate in Action For Spent Fuel Solutions Now, an initiative that calls for moving the waste — also known as spent fuel — to a federally licensed facility as quickly as possible.

The resolution, sponsored by county supervisors Jim Desmond and Terra Lawson-Remer, sees San Diego County join Orange County, Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, the Capistrano School District and the city of San Clemente in the coalition.

Edison’s parent company owns 75.74 percent of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Stations, known as SONGS for short. SDG&E owns 20 percent of the plant, which is in the second year of a projected eight-year dismantlement plan. Orange County’s board of supervisors joined the coalition in May.

“It’s critical to our community, our state and our county to find a solution,” said Desmond, who also sits on the SONGS Community Engagement Panel, a group organized by Edison that gives the public quarterly updates on decommissioning work and other activities at the plant.

“The waste at San Onofre is a threat to our community and as we work to remove it, our priority is to guarantee the integrity of onsite storage and the safety of our residents as we work night and day to get it off our beaches,” said Lawson-Remer. “So I think this is a great opportunity to join hands with others across our region who face a similar set of challenges.”

The waste accumulated while SONGS was generating electricity sits in 123 canisters at storage sites at the plant, overlooking the Pacific to the west and Interstate 5 to the east, because the federal government has not constructed a repository to ultimately send it.

The stranded waste issue is not unique to San Onofre. About 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel has stacked up at 121 commercial nuclear sites in 35 states. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the federal government is required to take possession and dispose of the waste. About $43 billion has been paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund, managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, and nearly $1 billion has come from SONGS customers.

The U.S. has spent about $15 billion to construct the Yucca Mountain site in the Nevada desert but shortly before it was scheduled to open, the Obama administration cut off funding, heeding calls from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other elected officials in the Silver State long opposed to opening the facility.

One possibility hinges on establishing what are called Consolidated Interim Storage facilities, where waste from SONGS and other commercial reactor sites could be sent until a permanent repository is built.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month issued a final environmental impact report on a private company constructing an interim storage facility in the West Texas town of Andrews. NRC staff recommended approving the license for the facility but the project has generated opposition from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and others.

A private group in southeast New Mexico has also proposed building an interim site but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has come out against it.

The resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors calls for spending up to $100,000 in fiscal year 2021-22, with the money coming from existing General Purpose Revenue.

Lucero Sanchez of San Diego Coastkeeper, a nonprofit formed to protect the region’s rivers, streams and coastline, phoned in Tuesday to speak in favor of the county joining the coalition, saying the plant’s location is vulnerable to sea level rise and seismic activity.

But Chelsi Sparti, associate director of the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, which has been a harsh critic of Southern California Edison, said the coalition is not a good use of county dollars.

“It’s really a non-solution because it’s the same thing that Edison has always been advocating for,” Sparti said. “It’s just a new coalition, a new name and new branding.”

SONGS has not produced electricity since 2012 after a leak in a steam generator tube led to the closing of the plant.

The spent fuel at SONGS rests in 50 horizontal casks and 73 in vertical casks on the north end of the plant.


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