Coastal Commission signs off on updated permit on nuclear storage plan at San Onofre

A specialized crane downloading a canister filled with used-up nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
A specialized crane downloading a canister filled with used-up nuclear fuel into an enclosure at the dry storage facility at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
(Southern California Edison)

The California Coastal Commission on Thursday approved an inspection and maintenance program that is part of a permit that allows Southern California Edison, the operator of the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, to place canisters containing used-up nuclear fuel in a storage site on the plant’s premises.

In a 10-0 vote, the commission OK’d a program that starting in 2024 will inspect two spent fuel storage canisters every 5 years and inspect a test canister at San Onofre every 2 1/2 years. The program also calls for Edison to apply a metallic overlay on canisters, using robotic devices, in case canisters get scratched.

Thursday’s vote echoed earlier votes dating back to 2015, when the commission reluctantly OK’d the storage plan as part of Edison’s larger decommissioning efforts because the San Onofre nuclear plant — like other nuclear sites across the country — stores its waste on its premises because the federal government has not opened a repository to send the fuel.

The permit, which lasts 20 years, includes a “special condition” that allows the commission by 2035 to revisit whether the storage site should be moved to another location in case of rising sea levels, earthquake risks, potential canister damage or other scenarios.

In a meeting last fall, the commission told Edison officials to pay for an independent third-party review of its Inspection and Management Program for canister storage. The LPI engineering consulting firm was hired and made recommendations that included enhancements in inspections for any flaws and scratches on the canisters.

Edison agreed to the upgrades and Coastal Commission staff recommended approving the new plan, aimed at making sure the canisters “will remain in physical condition sufficient” to allow them to be sent elsewhere, once a new site is someday found.

While all 10 commissioners voted in favor, many said they weren’t happy about it.

“This type of material has no business being in the coastal zone of California,” said Coastal Commission chairman Steve Padilla. “It is a no-win, I think, for all of us but I think under the circumstances, (voting yes is) the right step.”

Commissioner Dayna Bochco said, “I think we’re all trying to push as hard as possible to get the federal government to step up and do what they should have done 40 or 50 years ago.”

The 4 1/2-hour meeting, held virtually because of COVID-19 restrictions, included comment from longtime critics of the storage plan at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, known as SONGS for short, who called on the commission to reject the updated permit or delay the vote.

Edison plans to eventually dismantle the two spent storage pools where highly radioactive fuel rods go to be cooled before being placed into stainless steel canisters and then slowly moved to a “dry storage” facility at the north end of SONGS.

Opponents of Edison say the 40-feet-deep pools should stay, in case anything goes wrong with the canisters, or mandate the utility construct a containment chamber, or “hot cell,” where damaged canisters can go.

“Leaving the San Onofre site without a cooling mechanism guarantees in the event of a leak or accident the real possibility of harm to the coast and its inhabitants,” said Pam Heartherington of the executive committee at Sierra Club San Diego. “Please require that the cooling ponds remain on site.”

Edison officials have said returning a damaged canister to a pool poses more risks in terms of increased radiation dose to workers, potential radiation releases or damage to fuel rods than repairing a canister through remote welding or “nesting” the canister into another one that’s larger. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require storage pools to remain on site.

“The likelihood that you would need a hot cell to correct any problem with a cask is very unlikely so it’s not something that we require or that is in place at any of our (storage) facilities,” said Andrea Kock, director of the NRC’s division of fuel management.

Some Edison critics said the LPI report amounted to “wishful thinking,” while others called for more inspections to make sure the stainless steel canisters don’t corrode or crack.

“We urge the commission to set a strong precedent that will protect the California coast from potential nuclear disaster, however unlikely,” said Mandy Sackett, manager of the San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Edison representative Tom Palmisano said the new inspection protocols exceed NRC requirements and said stress corrosion cracking “is unlikely, especially given the fabrication materials in our canister, and it’s a very slow-growing process for a crack to initiate and a crack to propagate. So should something occur, there is more than enough time to identify it.”

SONGS is home to about 1,610 metric tons, or 3.55 million pounds, of used-up nuclear fuel — a portion of the 80,000 metric tons of waste that has piled up at commercial reactors across the country.

A federal repository at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert was thought to be the destination for the spent fuel but the Obama administration cut off funding amid opposition from Nevada lawmakers, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid among them.

A private company in West Texas and another in southeastern New Mexico want to build sites that could take waste from places like San Onofre but environmental, political and regulatory hurdles remain.

“We need to get cracking on a finding a permanent location for these canisters to get this resolved,” commissioner Roberto Uranga said before the vote.

Workers at SONGS have transferred 69 canisters from the spent fuel pools to the dry storage facility. Four more remain to be moved by the end of August to complete all the transfers.

Transfers began in early 2018 but were put on hold for 11 months after a canister got lodged into one of its storage cavities while being lowered in August 2018. The 50-ton canister filled with waste was left accidentally suspended without support rigging for about 45 minutes before it was successfully lowered.

The incident resulted in Edison receiving a fine of $116,000 by the NRC that chided the utility for failing “to establish a rigorous process to ensure adequate procedures, training and oversight guidance.” Edison resumed transfers in July 2019 after it said it had bolstered safety and oversight practices.

SONGS has not produced electricity since 2012 and a dismantlement project expected to take 8-10 years began earlier this year.

— Rob Nikolewski is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune