Watchdog group worried about San Onofre waste danger

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SAN DIEGO — As the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission begins its eight-year-long process of decommissioning and dismantling the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a local watchdog group has filed a petition to put a halt to actions at the seaside plant.

Public Watchdogs, a nonprofit advocacy group, claims that if the facility is flooded with rain or ocean water, the proposed method of disposing nuclear waste could lead to explosive radioactive steam geysers. It is asking for a detailed look into disaster-proofing the site while it still has radioactive materials present.

The plant’s majority owner and operator, Southern California Edison, sent out notices a week ago to residents within five miles of the plant that it would begin initial work on the demolition. San Onofre hasn’t produced power since a steam leak in 2012, and SCE closed the plant the following year and began decommissioning activities.

The nuclear waste is being stored self-cooling canisters which take in cool air and expel hot air. The nuclear waste can reach temperatures of up to 452 degrees, according to the advocacy group, which fears that the thermal shock of cold ocean water could cause a rupture in the canisters.

Doug Bauder, the chief nuclear officer at the plant, said deconstruction was imminent and would follow every procedure.

“The work involving radiological materials is done under strict Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety guidelines and oversight,” he wrote in a notice to nearby residents. “We’re providing you with this 30-day advance notice of the start of deconstruction activities, currently anticipated to be no earlier than February 22, 2020.”

When the California Coastal Commission voted 9-0 last October to allow SCE to begin dismantling the plant, the canisters were being moved from a “wet storage” facility to a newly-constructed “dry storage” facility on the site. San Onofre is located on 85 acres of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base and is home to 3.55 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last year.

The vote to dismantle the facility came with its own set of controversies, as there is no permanent federal site for nuclear waste, allowing it to pile up at facilities such as San Onofre.

Public Watchdogs claim the risk of having the waste sitting at the site within a short distance of millions of people is a disaster waiting to happen.

Charles Langley, executive director of the advocacy group, pulled no punches in his letter to Margaret Doane, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“This petition identifies possibly the most significant man-made engineering disaster of the century, exceeding such disasters as Chernobyl, Fukushima, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, and the Deepwater Horizon oil expulsion,” he wrote.

The costs of deconstruction come from $4.4 billion in existing trust funds for that purpose collected over years from Edison’s customers and from trust investments.

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