The massive, 150-ton turbines have stopped spinning. The mile-long cooling pipes that extend into the Pacific will likely become undersea relics. High voltage that once energized the homes of more than a million Californians is down to zero.
But the San Onofre nuclear power plant will loom for a long time as a landmark, its 1,800 tons of lethal radioactive waste stored on the edge of the Pacific and within sight of the busy 5 Freeway.
Across the site, deep pools of water and massive concrete casks confine high-power gamma radiation and other forms of radioactivity emitted by 890,000 spent fuel rods that nobody wants there.
And like the other 79,000 tons of spent fuel spread across the nation, San Onofre’s nuclear waste has nowhere to go.
The shuttered San Onofre facility — not withstanding its overlook of prime surf breaks — is similar to about a dozen other former nuclear power plants nationwide that now have to babysit waste to prevent natural disasters, human errors or terrorist plots from causing an environmental or health catastrophe.
Though utilities and government regulators say such risks are remote, they have inflamed public fear at least since 1979’s Three Mile Island reactor accident in Pennsylvania.
The sites are located on the scenic shores of northern Lake Michigan, along a bucolic river in Maine, on the high plateau of Colorado and along the densely populated Eastern Seaboard — each environmentally sensitive for different reasons.
No one wants that waste near them — including officials in the sleepy beach town of San Clemente, just north of San Onofre. Even Southern California Edison Co. officials, while insisting the waste is safe, agree it should be moved as soon as possible.
Two little-known privately held companies, New Jersey-based Holtec International and Texas-based WCS, have unveiled plans and begun licensing applications with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for interim storage sites on each side of the New Mexico-Texas border. Officials in the area, a booming center of oil production, are enthusiastic about the potential economic benefits. And nuclear utilities have offered encouragement.
Company officials and other proponents say such temporary dumps could be opened in as little as three or four years, assuming the licensing goes smoothly. But other nuclear waste experts expect a timetable of 10 to 15 years for a temporary dump and much longer for a permanent repository.