Used Nuclear Fuel Storage at San Onofre Raises Concerns Over Plant’s Vulnerability  

The Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a memorandum of understanding with Southern California Edison to provide the county over $10 million in financial support for emergency preparedness at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating station.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who made the motion in support of approving the memorandum, said if there is an incident at the plant it could cost the county a lot of money to address the emergency and the sum agreed to would only cover notifying communities of an incident.

Donna Boston, Orange County director of emergency management, said there is a provision in the agreement that would allow the county to bill Southern California Edison for any excess spending if an emergency response is needed.

“We’re not getting but a pittance when you consider what it’s going to take on an emergency preparedness basis, whether it’s evacuation of cities, or if we’ve got nuclear fuel that’s leaking out into the atmosphere or the communities,” Bartlett said.

The supervisors’ action comes on the heels of a virtual meeting held last week by the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel about the plant’s vulnerability. The panel made up of local officials and community members advises the plant’s operators on the dismantling of the plant and meets at least four times a year. 

The plant at San Onofre was retired in June 2013 after uproar from the public and local officials over a radiation leak in 2012. 

Since then the used nuclear fuel that’s been cooling in wet pools is being converted to dried storage and is kept at the plant. About nine of the 73 canisters of used fuel have yet to be transferred to dry storage but the process is expected to be completed by mid-summer.

“We’re moving the spent fuel rods out of the cooling pools and into the dry cask storage, which is safer, but you’re still going to have all of those spent fuel rods in the dry cask storage that are above ground, which concerns me,” said Bartlett.

Supervisor Andrew Do also shared concerns about the possibility of exposing people in the county to radiation if there is an emergency.

“If you think about the direction that we are moving in as a county, with more development in South County as well, the impact of any kind of incident at San Onofre can be very significant,” Do said.

At the virtual community meeting last week, Kevin Crowley, the former senior board director of Nuclear and Radiation Studies at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said numerous assessments have been done on the vulnerability of the dry storage system.

Crowley was one of several experts the community engagement panel brought in to quell the public’s concerns. He said it would be difficult for terrorists to successfully attack the canisters to the point where significant amounts of radioactive material would be released. 

“These systems are massively shielded, and they contain multiple barriers to the release of radioactive materials, and attack must penetrate all barriers to result in any significant releases,” Crowley said.

“No dry storage system provides complete protection against all types of terrorist attacks that one could postulate. However, any radioactive material released from attacks would likely be small,” he said.

Boston, the director of county emergency management, said at the virtual meeting that if officials get reports of a situation at the plant they will deploy the necessary people to assess the situation and determine the proper response.

“We do not manage hazards, we manage consequences. So we’re looking at what the impact is and then we’re going to work to lessen that impact for our community and protect our community,” Boston said.

Some members of the public felt the virtual meeting had an inadequate discussion of the worst case scenario at San Onofre.

“There is no plan for when one of these canisters does fail,” said Kalene Walker during the public comment portion of the presentation at last week’s virtual meeting. “There’s so many issues regarding this system. I’m into prevention. Emergency response is super important and appreciated. But I don’t want to be anywhere near when one of these canisters goes off.”

Bartlett said Tuesday that canisters have cracked before.

“If we have a terrorist attack or something else occurs, we could be in a world of hurt until we get those canisters completely moved off site somewhere else,” Bartlett said.

John Dobken, the public information officer for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, said the canisters are 5/8ths of an inch thick stainless steel and dry storage canisters have been kept at the facility since 2003. He said it could take 80 years or more for them to crack.

“There has never been a canister crack at San Onofre. The canisters are not susceptible to cracking in the short term,” Dobken said.