Decades of toxic waste stranded as nuclear plants close out via TribeLive

Midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, the San Onofre Nuclear Plant waits to be dismantled.

After more than 40 years of protests, lawsuits and safety scares, its two concrete-encased reactors, jutting from the pristine California coastline, are powered down and its massive steam turbines, once deafening, are quiet.

For the activists who fought to close the plant, the victory is bittersweet.

The reactors will disappear, but 1,600 metric tons of radioactive waste remain. While some is stacked in steel-lined casks, and the rest is submerged in cooling pools, all of it is trapped in a political and regulatory limbo that keeps it from going anywhere anytime soon. And San Onofre isn’t alone: More than 76,000 metric tons of waste is stranded at dozens of commercial sites, just as the United States approaches a critical mass of nuclear-plant retirements.

“Many were surprised to learn that when the plant is decommissioned, the fuel has nowhere to go,” said David Victor, chairman of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel tasked with overseeing the closure. “The problem is, nobody is in charge.”


On Oct. 24, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station near Blair, Neb., became the fifth nuclear plant to close in five years. Of 119 reactors in the United States, 20 are now being decommissioned and a half-dozen more are expected to close prematurely, nudged out by cheap natural gas and growing use of renewables.

Beyond that, “the big wave of retirements really starts coming in around 2030,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz warned last month at an event in Washington.

Among experts, the nuclear waste debate invariably turns on the fleeting nature of human institutions in dealing with an element that the Environmental Protection Agency has said must be isolated for 10,000 years to protect humans and the environment from toxic radiation.

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