One thing was very clear after a near-disastrous almost- accident last summer at the now-defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station beside the Orange-San Diego county line:
Canisters of radioactive waste from the shuttered plant already placed for “temporary” storage on its grounds and new containers not yet placed must go somewhere else, as soon as possible.
The problem is, there is no other place and virtually no one wants an atomic dump anywhere near their home. That’s why nuclear waste is now stored at more than six dozen active or decommissioned atomic power plants around America.
The near accident last year saw a 45-ton canister filled with spent fuel with a half life in the hundreds of thousands of years somehow get stuck on the edge of a storage cavity about 18 feet above the floor of San Onofre’s “temporary” storage facility 108 feet from a state beach popular with surfers.
Plant operator Southern California Edison Co. insisted the incident never posed a danger. It was kept quiet until an industrial safety worker spoke of it during a public meeting about a week later.
Edison says there was no danger of escaped radiation even if the canister had fallen to the floor of the storage plant.
Others saw it as a cause for action. “You need to quit tempting fate,” an official of the Union of Concerned Scientists told a reporter.
But how, when no one wants this deadly stuff, which some experts say could harm everyone within a 50-mile radius if its radiation got loose?
Because all of America’s existing storage facilities are at or beyond capacity, the answer has to be a new dump to house not just San Onofre’s waste, but also residues stored at other sites.
One candidate for years has been Yucca Mountain, near Mercury, Nevada, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Things have never been simple there, scientifically or politically. That’s why the Yucca Mountain site, first proposed by federal officials in the 1990s, never took off.
Using it is complete anathema to all Nevada politicians. For years, Democrat Harry Reid, the retired majority leader of the U.S. Senate, blocked it. Nevada’s current senators are just as adamant.
“I will be working to fight Yucca Mountain every which way,” said newly-minted Democratic Sen. Jackie Rosen within days of her election last fall. Defeated Republican ex-Sen. Dean Heller also fought using the mountain’s cavernous interior for a dump.
Their opposition is based in part on a theory that radioactivity from Yucca Mountain could trickle into underground water and eventually reach the Colorado River upstream from intakes to the aqueduct of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Any threat to that supply would create massive pressure to draw more water from Northern California streams.
This theory has been debunked, geologists saying Yucca Mountain water drains west toward Death Valley, not east to the Colorado. Still, it had enough credibility to make retired California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer a firm Yucca Mountain foe.
But soon, 73 huge radioactive canisters will sit behind a 28-foot beachfront breakwater at San Onofre. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported a similar container in a South African beachfront storage site failed after 17 years from cracking triggered by corrosive salt in the marine environment, says the website SanOnofreSafety.org.
Since some spent fuel canisters at San Onofre were loaded as early as 2003, that may mean leakage is possible within the next year. No one knows how this might be managed.
It all creates pressure for Yucca Mountain.
Says Bill Alley, co-author of the nuclear waste analysis book, “Too Hot to Touch,” “Especially with Diablo Canyon nearing shutdown in the early 2020s, this is a major California problem and there is no other site being studied.” Added Charles Langley, executive director of the San Diego consumer group Public Watchdogs, “Yucca Mountain (may be) the best in an array of possible solutions ranging from atrocious to absolutely horrible.”
Plainly, a site safer than the San Onofre beachfront must be found, and Yucca Mountain may be the best option, no matter how imperfect or locally unwelcome.