But for all the good vibes and stellar sunsets, beneath the surface hides a potential threat: 3.6m lb of nuclear waste from a group of nuclear reactors shut down nearly a decade ago. Decades of political gridlock have left it indefinitely stranded, susceptible to threats including corrosion, earthquakes and sea level rise.
The San Onofre reactors are among dozens across the United States phasing out, but experts say they best represent the uncertain future of nuclear energy.
“It’s a combination of failures, really,” said Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the top federal enforcer,between 2009 and 2012, of the situation at San Onofre.
Thatwaste isthe byproduct of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs), three nuclear reactors primarily owned by the utility Southern California Edison (SCE).
Federal regulators had already cited SCE for several safety issues, including leaking radioactive waste and falsified firewatch records. But when a new steam generator began leaking a small amount of radioactivity in January 2012, just one year after it was replaced, it was SCE’s most serious problem yet. A subsequent report from the NRC’s inspector general found federal inspectors had overlooked red flags in 2009, and that SCE had replaced its own steam generators without proper approval. SCE tried to fix the problem but decided in 2013 to shut the plant down for good.
Activists thought they had scored a victory when the reactor shut down – until they learned that the nuclear waste they had produced would remain on-site.
That wasn’t supposed to be the case. Under the US Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the federal government was to move waste into a centralized, remote federal facility starting in 1998. In 2002, George W Bush approved Yucca Mountain, a site about 100 miles from Las Vegas, as a permanent underground nuclear waste repository. But in 2010, the Obama administration scrapped the controversial plan.
Without a government-designated place to store the waste, the California Coastal Commission in 2015 approved the construction of an installation at San Onofre to store ituntil 2035. In August 2020, workers concluded the multi-year burial process, loading the last of 73 canisters of waste into a concrete enclosure.
Plenty of risks, and not enough oversight
The waste is buried about 100ft from the shoreline, along the I-5 highway, one of the nation’s busiest thoroughfares, andnot far from a pair of faults that experts say could generate a 7.4 magnitude earthquake.
Another potential problem is corrosion. In its 2015 approval, the Coastal Commission noted the site could have a serious impact on the environment down the line, including on coastal access and marine life. “The [installation] would eventually be exposed to coastal flooding and erosion hazards beyond its design capacity, or else would require protection by replacing or expanding the existing Songs shoreline armoring,” the document says.
Concerns have also been raised about government oversight of the site. Just after San Onofre closed, SCE began seeking exemptions from the NRC’s operating rules for nuclear plants. The utility asked and received permission to loosen rules on-site, including those dealing with record-keeping, radiological emergency plans for reactors, emergency planning zones and on-site staffing.
San Onofre isn’t the only closed reactor to receive exemptions to its operating licence. The NRC’s regulations historically focused on operating reactors and assumed that, when a reactor shut down, the waste would be removed quickly.