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Why can’t we decide what to do about nuclear energy? via Popular Science

Within sight of the sunbathers at Old Man’s surf spot, 55 miles north of San ­Diego, California, loom a pair of 176-foot-tall orbs. They’re a strange backdrop, home of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Since its first reactor fired up in 1968, the plant has powered millions of lives. But now these concrete and steel domes house a problem. Inside their frames sit millions of pounds of radio-active fuel no longer of use to anyone.

In 2012, a small radiation leak forced the shutdown of one reactor. Rather than go through the regulatory red-tape of restarting the remaining reactor at reduced power, Southern California Edison, the operator, decided to shutter the whole plant. This year, workers will begin dismantling it as part of the costliest and biggest nuclear decommissioning project ever attempted in the U.S. The initial deactivation should take 10 years, with 700,000 metric tons of infrastructure crushed and freighted off to burial plots in Utah, ­Texas, and Arizona. The most radioactive stuff—3.2 million pounds of spent nuclear waste, including uranium-235—will be interred on-site in steel-and-concrete casks that will dot the landscape like tombstones.


A Cold War nuclear boom saw hundreds of light water reactors spread across the U.S. and Europe. As they proliferated, public fears grew alongside them, and by the 1970s, movies like The China Syndrome evoked the horrors of what might happen if something went wrong. Weeks after that movie’s release in 1979, it did. A partial meltdown on March 28 at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, rattled the nation. In 1986, an explosion at a plant in Chernobyl, Russia, and its subsequent radiation contamination of 90,000 square miles galvanized public opinion. Finally, in 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami triggered a series of events that led to a core meltdown in three reactors at Fukushima, Japan. This history of rare yet dramatic accidents was enough to sway public sentiment, but the availability of cheap natural gas made the choice easy. Much of the world that once embraced nuclear is now dealing with hundreds of silenced reactors and with cleaning up thousands of acres dotted with steel and concrete hulks and spent fuel. A $222 billion industry has sprung up to decommission these behemoths.

The choreography of unbuilding a nuclear power plant is complicated and ­requires hiring companies and workers that specialize in the process. In the case of San ­Onofre, it’s the Los Angeles-based AECOM and EnergySolutions, headquartered in Utah.

The $4.4 billion project aims to sweep clear most of the narrow 85-acre beachfront site. Workers have already moved the plant’s spent fuel into steel-lined cooling pools. After it has sat there for several years, workers will transfer it to 73 steel canisters and then tuck these inside 25-foot-tall monoliths next to the domes.

This repository will sit just 125 feet from the Pacific, behind a seawall that rises 28 to 30 feet above sea level. Its proximity to the coast—and to the 8 million people who live within 50 miles—means many of them want the waste gone. Last April, protesters dressed in hazmat suits and carrying surfboards march-ed through San Diego demanding the waste’s removal. The utility wants it gone too, but it has to keep it safely on-site for now. Tom Palmisano, vice president and chief nuclear officer at San Onofre, says that the storage system, known as dry cask, is designed to withstand an airplane crash, tsunami, even ground acceleration from a nearly magnitude 7.4 earthquake.

Read more at Why can’t we decide what to do about nuclear energy?

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