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Nuclear waste is all dressed up with nowhere to go

When I got to the San Onofre State Beach about 60 miles north of San Diego, the red sun of fire season was sandwiched on the horizon between a layer of fog and the sea. Surfers floated in a line off the shore. It looked like any other California beach — except for the row of signs that warned “Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Area,” and the twin reactor domes rising above the bluffs.

I was there to see the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a shuttered nuclear power plant right next to the Pacific Ocean. It once supplied electricity to Southern California, but was permanently shut down in 2013. It’s now scheduled to be dismantled, but even when that happens, more than 1,700 tons of spent nuclear fuel will remain — interred in enormous concrete casks behind a seawall. There’s nowhere else to put it.


It’s a question that nuclear power plants around the country are reckoning with as low natural gas prices, costly repairs, and political pressure have driven a half dozen reactors to retire early since 2013, according to the Department of Energy. More are slated to shut down in the next ten years — including Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear power plant, Rob Nikolewski reports for The San Diego Union-Tribune. That leaves communities that are no longer benefiting from nuclear power saddled with its waste — cooling off in gigantic pools of water made out of reinforced concrete or steel and concrete containers called dry storage.

All those containers of fuel left behind mean that no one can use the land for anything else. And the problem is widespread: spent fuel from commercial reactors is scattered across roughly 80 sites in 35 different states, according to the Government Accountability Office.It wasn’t supposed to be like this: for decades, the plan has been to bury highly radioactive nuclear waste underground. (There were also proposals to bury the waste in the ocean or shoot it into the sun — but those weren’t as practical, according to a report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.)

The idea is that a geologic repository would keep the waste away from people as the radioactivity decays — which can take hundreds of thousands of years, depending on the material. In the 1980s, the government settled on Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the most likely spot and planned to start taking shipments of spent nuclear fuel in 1998. In return, the deal was that utilities — really, their customers — would start paying ahead into a fund that would cover the costs. But Nevada politicians like Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) hated what became known as the “screw Nevada bill,” and the project has hit delay after delay ever since.


By the middle of 2019, the plan is to shift all of the fuel into steel containers encased in massive concrete blocks. Called dry storage, it’s air-cooled so it’s lower maintenance than the pools: it’s designed to keep the radioactive fuel from overheating without using water, pumps, or electricity. These concrete monoliths are supposed to hold up against floods, earthquakes, tornadoes even an airplane collision, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The dry storage comes in two flavors on the San Onofre site: in one, the canisters stand up vertically in the steel-lined cavities of a massive concrete block; in another, they slide in horizontally, like corpses into a nuclear morgue.


But recent mishaps at San Onofre have sparked local concerns. A loose pin in a new type of fuel canister raised alarm bells about faulty manufacturing. Southern California Edison stopped using those particular containers, and there have been no signs of trouble in the few that had already been filled with waste, Southern California Edison spokesperson Julie Holt told me. More recently, another fuel canister jammed on its way down into the concrete vault and could have fallen, Rob Nikolewski at the San Diego Union-Tribunereported. “If this had occurred, it would not have created a hazard to the public or employees,” Tom Palmisano, vice president of decommissioning, said in a letter that was shared with The Verge.

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