Policy stalemate leaves toxic spent fuel stranded
Some 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste at the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is all stored up with no place to go.
The plant has not produced electricity since January 2012 for the nearly 19 million people served by Southern California Edison, the majority owner of the facility, and San Diego Gas & Electric, which owns 20 percent.
Edison officials overseeing the plant’s decommissioning have set a target date of the end of 2032 to remove nearly every remnant of the generating station, which hugs the Southern California coastline at the northern tip of San Diego County in Camp Pendleton.
The operative word is “nearly” because, in all likelihood, the waste — also called spent fuel or used fuel — will stay behind for years to come, stranded until a long-term solution is reached on what to do with it.
Going back to the 1960s when the plant broke ground, anti-nuclear critics and Edison officials have not often seen eye-to-eye. But when it comes to the spent fuel, they are in complete agreement: Both sides want it off the premises as soon as possible.
“There’s no place to move it to,” said Allison McFarlane, a former chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Sorry, you might want to move it tomorrow but this is not magic. You can’t wave your wand and, poof, it’s gone.”
Although the used fuel at San Onofre is Edison’s responsibility, it’s ultimately supposed to be handed over to the federal government and the U.S. Department of Energy, as per the details of the 1982 Waste Policy Act passed by Congress.
But a repository for waste from nuclear sites across the country including San Onofre does not exist.
Million-year plan confounds feds
For decades, a site was proposed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that was originally required to protect the environment from the release of radioactive isotopes for 10,000 years.
The limit was later increased to 1 million years, and the federal government spent $9 billion on the repository, located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Yucca Mountain was scheduled to open in 2017.
From pool to cask
Roughly two-thirds of the spent fuel at San Onofre is sitting in what’s called “wet storage” pools and one-third is in what’s called “dry cask storage.”
Even after fuel rods in a nuclear reactor are used up, they are still highly radioactive and can generate heat for decades.
The fuel assemblies are moved into pools of water to cool. At San Onofre, the rods in wet storage are placed in a concrete structure 40 feet deep that is lined with steel and filled with water.
Palmisano said he expects by 2019 a complete transfer of all the fuel to dry casks — concrete-encased steel canisters — on the premises.
A new installation is being built to house 73 canisters, just in front of dry-cask canisters already on site.
The oldest fuel is packed in 17 canisters from the Unit 1 reactor that hasn’t been in operation since 1992.
But Palmisano said some of those canisters cannot be shipped out until 2029 or 2030 at the earliest because the fuel rods were encased in stainless steel, the technology of the time. That fuel needs to decay for 38 years before transportation.