By BRANDON PHO
Ocean waves that grow especially tall a few times during the year, rumbling against the California coast and offering a glimpse into future sea level rise and a reshaping shoreline, according to state coastal regulators.
Those tides rolled up to San Onofre last weekend, where a sea wall stands to protect what nearby communities fear is a man-made disaster in waiting: the decommissioned but still radioactive San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).
The following week, local officials and activists convened a set of dueling community forums that well capture the ongoing dispute over what exact risk the nuclear waste sitting at SONGS poses to all life within the area joining Orange and San Diego counties.
The debate centers on the integrity of SONGS’ nuclear waste storage system, which has been criticized as prone to failure and an ecological and human health hazard.
One Nov. 19 forum hosted by nuclear watchdogs saw some of their fears echoed back to them by Dr. Ian Fairlie, a radiation biologist in London who once headed the Secretariat of the UK Government’s CERRIE committee on internal radiation risks.
Later that same day, Edison’s own, regularly-held Community Engagement Panel meeting sought to again dispel public qualms about the nuclear waste.
Specifically, it dismissed fears that sea level rise could swamp the facility, which sits right on the coastline. Members of the public laid out those concerns at an Aug. 20 panel meeting, and the comments can be read here.
There are a few things keeping the ocean from the site’s nuclear storage, for now. A seawall stands in front of SONGS and a pad of cement shields the nuclear storage from a table of groundwater below. The table is anticipated to rise as sea levels do.
Ron Pontes, an Edison representative and deputy director for the decommissioning project, said during the meeting the sea wall is in good condition and the cement below the nuclear storage canisters is 3 feet thick.
There’s deep disagreement about what to do with the leftover nuclear waste, all 1,800 metric tons of which are in dry storage and embedded in concrete.
It’s been decades since the enactment of that promise, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, and some are anxious that a permanent federal location won’t spring up before the prospect of Edison’s current nuclear storage canisters failing.
States’ refusals to be the site of that repository — most notably, a dropped plan for one in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain — creates a national quandary, with radioactive materials stacking up all over the U.S. and local jurisdictions anxious to be rid of them.
Fairlie at the Nov. 19 forum, hosted by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation and local nuclear safety groups, said the current canisters in use by Edison are “not very good – they are cheap … 5/8ths of an inch thick, prone to cracking.”
They’re “designed to be temporary and they’re not really robust from external attack in my view,” he said, adding “it would be much, much, much better” for the spent fuel to be stored in a thicker cask — “Unlikely to be subject to cracks.” The only problem? “They’re very expensive.”