More than 2 million visitors flock each year to California’s San Onofre state beach, a dreamy slice of coastline just north of San Diego. The beach is popular with surfers, lies across one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the Unites States and has a 10,000-year-old sacred Native American site nearby. It even landed a shout-out in the Beach Boys’ 1963 classic Surfin’ USA.
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.
That waste is the byproduct of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs), three nuclear reactors primarily owned by the utility Southern California Edison .
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.