A Summary of Nuclear Waste Issue at San Onofre

by on October 23, 2017 · 2 comments

in Environment, Health, San Diego

By Gary Headrick

I was recently asked to clear up some confusion about our nuclear waste strategy in an email thread between some good friends. I thought it might be worth sharing a refined version of my reply with you.

Also if you have not signed and shared our Petition yet, please do.

Here is the basic objective:

Delay the date for silos on the beach to get loaded with extremely radioactive waste.

This allows time to consider better alternatives that make us safer while deadly waste remains here cooling off for perhaps decades before it can be moved. We must deal with the fact that they are using canisters that can’t be monitored to prevent leaks, can’t be repaired and by regulation, are not allowed to be moved because they can’t be inspected inside or out to see if they are in transportable condition. We believe there must be a better plan. We could possibly shorten the time for removal and save money if we avoid using a storage system that just needs to be replaced later.

Other important work to be done, like removing the reactors from the domes, could be accomplished while we consider our options. That would require a shift in the schedule, but not a delay in the overall plan. It might turn out that the domes could be re-purposed for handling nuclear waste problems or for reloading in a protected environment. Maybe they shouldn’t be destroyed quite so soon?

Some people are concerned about the waste remaining in the pools any longer than necessary, but until the shutdown was announced, the plan was to continue using wet storage for another 40 years. Many people think we can afford a little more time in the pools to make sure we don’t end up with canisters that are cracking and can never be moved to another site. That is the predictable course we seem to be on now. They are asking us to risk all we have to lose based on unproven and experimental technology, once again assuming everything will go as planned.

Here is the detailed objective:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved using thin canisters for short term storage. These were considerably less expensive than thicker casks that were being used in other parts of the country at the time. They were counting on the government to take them to a permanent disposal site before the 20 year licence was up. Thin canisters were to be used for storage only and were not designed for transport by themselves. A transport cask is supposed to be made available sometime in the future, adding another layer of cost and uncertainty to this proposed system compared to thick casks which can be transported as is.

Some canisters at San Onofre have been in service for 14 years already. According to NRC documents, they were concerned about a similar tank in a marine environment that experienced stress corrosion cracking in just 17 years, and it was not even holding nuclear waste. At Holtec’s other similar waste site at Diablo Canyon, it was discovered that a two year old canister already had developed the conditions to begin the cracking process.

Here is a link to a short “MUST SEE” video of the CEO of Holtec (maker of the canisters Edison selected) making a public statement which erases any doubt about this possibility of cracking, acknowledging that “even a microscopic crack would emit millions of curies of radiation and that it would not be practical to repair”.

In issuing the permit, California Coastal Commission (CCC) stipulated that these nuclear waste containers must be monitorable, inspectable, repairable and transportable BUT only after twenty years . We feel that these reasonable expectations should have been a prerequisite for approval. Technology exists today that can meet those practical requirements. Edison could have requested bids for thicker casks but they didn’t want to even consider them. By requesting the CCC to revoke the permit, the commission can initiate a process that stops Edison from loading the silos until a decision has been made. That gives us a chance to get independent experts to recommend an alternative plan.

Some have suggested loading it into thick casks and taking it to the Mesa site on the other side of the freeway. No matter what, Edison estimates it has to stay here for at least 17 years to cool off enough to be moved. Other evidence points to 45 years before some canisters with high burn up fuel can be moved. Using the longer lasting casks seems like the first priority to make us safer while nuclear waste has to remain stranded here. Donna Gilmore has done a lot of well documented research on all this at SanOnofreSafety.org.

In my opinion, no one is going to want to be on the receiving end when the canisters are not reliable. I doubt that Edison will be able to move thin canisters, facing strong opposition when crossing state lines. Edison could then turn to the Department of Energy (DOE) after the waste is buried and structures torn down and insist that the government (taxpayers) take over at that point. Proposed legislation (HR 3053) would allow Edison to do that immediately.

Meanwhile, Holtec stands to make billions of dollars for promising to create an interim storage site that may never get used (like Yucca Mountain). That leaves us with canisters that may start leaking, making them impossible to move. That sounds rather cynical, but then again, these are the same people that had the worst safety record in the nation and attempted to restart a defective reactor without fixing it first. Fortunately they were finally persuaded to shutdown instead.

Edison has come up with the worst solution imaginable. We need to make the most out of the time we have to get independent experts to figure out the best alternative. Meanwhile we have no way of knowing if cracks have started in canisters that have been welded shut until it is too late and they begin leaking. I should mention here that just one of the 123 dry canisters holds as much radiation as was released in the Chernobyl accident, so we are not safe until the last one leaves. The thick casks (like most other countries use) have double lids bolted on with monitoring devices between the lids to tell us if there is a problem developing. They can then be unbolted and reloaded or repaired if needed.

That is the best I can do to summarize the issue as I see it. For a lighter take on it see John Oliver’s episode on nuclear waste. It is funny, but serious too when you see the many optimistic projections that never quite materialize made by the DOE and the industry at large.

It really comes down to this…do you think we can trust them or should we play it safe and plan for the worst?


Gary Headrick is the founder of San Clemente Green. He can be reached at 949 218 4051 or gary@sanclementegreen.org



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Gary Headrick October 23, 2017 at 1:51 pm

Thank you for posting, and thanks to any readers who made it through this rather long explanation. Raising awareness on such a technical issue is a daunting and I appreciate anyone who becomes better educated on this matter and alerts others to this most dangerous threat to all we care about. As usual, it will be up to people like you and me to make sure this is handled in the best way possible.


Frank Gormlie October 24, 2017 at 10:44 am

Thank you, Gary, for keeping them honest and keeping us informed.


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