Moving nuclear waste out of San Onofre: When and how? via The San Diego Union-Tribune

Is there a chance that the tons of nuclear waste at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) could finally get moved to another location?

Prompted by a lawsuit filed by an advocacy group, confidential negotiations are under way that may be exploring just that possibility.


How much nuclear waste is at the plant?

SONGS officials say there are 1,609 metric tons, which equals 3.55 million pounds.

Is that a lot? 

It represents about 2 percent of the total amount of the spent fuel from all of the nation’s nuclear power plants, according to the most recent figures from the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group.

SONGS accounts for about half the amount of nuclear waste that has accumulated at plants in California.


What exactly is spent fuel?

Inside a nuclear reactor, enriched uranium sustains a series of controlled nuclear reactions that unleash quantities of energy that is converted to steam that drives turbines that generate electricity.

After about four to six years, nuclear fuel loses its efficiency and is considered “spent.”

But the spent fuel is still thermally hot and emits a great deal of radiation — enough to kill someone within minutes if that person is not adequately shielded — and remains radioactive for thousands of years because of the long half-lives of some of its radio-isotopes.

To keep the fuel cool, nuclear plant operators transfer the waste to what is called “wet storage,” where it is placed in a metal rack in a deep pool of water, typically for at least five years.

After the fuel has been cooled it may be transferred to a dry storage system.

SONGS hasn’t produced electricity since January 2012 and there are 8.4 million people within a 50-mile radius of the plant. So why does its spent fuel stay on site?

Because, to put it bluntly, the federal government has dropped the ball. Under the Waste Policy Act, passed by Congress in 1982, the U.S. Department of Energy was given responsibility for the long-term storage of nuclear waste.


Why not send spent fuel to Yucca Mountain? 

That was the original plan.

The government spent anywhere between $9 billion and $15 billion to build the repository that would store the fuel deep underground in the Nevada desert, about 100 miles from Las Vegas.

From the moment Yucca Mountain was first discussed on Capitol Hill back in the 1980s, lawmakers in Nevada fought against it. Nonetheless, the Department of Energy recommended opening Yucca and in 2002 the site was approved by then-President George W. Bush.

But the Obama administration cut funding for Yucca Mountain, delighting Nevada’s Harry Reid, who became the Senate Majority Leader after the 2008 elections.

Now, however, there are indications that Yucca is back on the table.

The Trump administration has called for spending $120 million on storage projects that include reviving Yucca Mountain.


If Yucca Mountain came back online, is it big enough to handle all the nation’s nuclear waste?

Yes and no.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the repository was designed to hold 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste with 63,000 metric tons reserved for commercial waste. The total amount of waste from nuclear plants across the country has reached 78,590 and the industry adds about 2,200 tons each year. So in that respect, Yucca by itself would not be big enough to house all the nation’s spent fuel.

But the Nuclear Energy Institute says the 70,000-ton limit is not a design constraint but a restriction that was legislatively imposed. Originally, Congress envisioned the construction of not one (Yucca Mountain) but two national repositories and wanted to make sure the nation’s nuclear waste would be equitably distributed between them.

NEI officials say Yucca Mountain could “safely accommodate four to nine times” the 70,000 figure.


Two sites have been discussed.

One is in a sparsely populated area in West Texas, operated by a company called Waste Control Specialists. The facility stores low-level radioactive waste and the company wants to dramatically expand the site, which has a 14,000-acre footprint.

But two months ago the company in charge of the project put its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on hold due to financial problems.

Waste Control Specialists executives had earlier discussed constructing the facility by 2019 but suspending the NRC’s review of the application will almost certainly delay the project, if it ever gets built.

The other possible site is in eastern New Mexico and it would be a big one — proposed to hold about 120,000 metric tons of waste. Representatives of the project appeared at the most recent San Onofre engagement panel and said the plan has the support of local governments.


There’s a third site on the radar screen as well.

Former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre has lobbied for moving SONGS waste to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, located about 50 miles from Phoenix.


Who does the waste belong to — the federal government or Southern California Edison?

The spent fuel is the responsibility of Southern California Edison but according to the details of the Waste Policy Act, the waste eventually will be handed over to the U.S. Department of Energy. The agency takes title at the gate when the fuel leaves the site and owns it from that point on.

Do other nuclear power plants store their waste on-site like SONGS does?

Yes, since the federal government has not come up with a site to deposit spent fuel.

Does SONGS have the most spent fuel on site of any other plant in the country?

Not the most, but it’s in the top 10.


Where, exactly, is the spent fuel at SONGS?

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.


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