Used nuclear fuel sits in dry storage canisters at the retired San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station right on the coast between Orange and San Diego counties.

This has raised concerns about the serious environmental and public health risks that could result if the storage system fails.

The California Coastal Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the plant’s owner, Southern California Edison’s plans on inspecting and maintaining the storage of the spent fuel for the next 25 years. The plan has drawn criticism from local environmental groups and some nuclear experts, who expressed concern over the thoroughness and safety of the plan.

The commission is in charge of regulating land and water use in the state’s coastal zones. 

Sixty nine of the 73 canisters of used fuel have been transferred to dry storage. The plan is supposed to ensure the canisters holding the used nuclear fuel will remain in a good physical condition that would allow them to be moved on or offsite till 2035. 

An independent engineering consulting firm, LPI, reviewed and approved of Edison’s plan suggesting improvements to it. Some experts spoke in favor of the proposal Thursday and called it safe. Some of the measures of the plan include daily monitoring of the dry storage system’s temperature, air passageways and vent screens; monthly checks of vent screens for damage; and, annual examination of external surfaces for degradation.

Rod McCullum, who for over two decades has been in charge of spent nuclear fuel programs for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear technologies industry policy organization based in Washington D.C., said the commission staff’s conclusions in support of the plan “are based on a sound foundation in both experience and science.”

Several other people, interest groups and nuclear experts urged commissioners at the meeting to hold off on approving the proposal until Edison addressed their safety concerns. Questions around the conclusions reached by reviewer LPI have also popped up. 

Rosa Acheson, a legal intern for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization, said that increasing coastal erosion, rising sea levels, seismic activity and San Onofre’s proximity to densely populated areas cause concern about the plan’s thoroughness.

“The geologic, coastal and seismic risks posed by a potential canister failure or canister being trapped on the coastline warrant an increase in the inspection rate and number of canisters inspected,” Acheson said. 

One of the main concerns expressed by multiple people at the meeting was against the planned removal of cooling pools from San Onofre used to safely repair the canisters.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Levin convened a task force in 2019 to analyze technical and regulatory issues at San Onofre. 

“For the most part, people on this diverse Task Force agreed we must keep the spent fuel pools intact until a dry fuel handling facility, also called a hot cell can be built,” Gary Headrick, part of the task force, said in a video presented to the coastal commission. “Otherwise, we will have no contingency plan for damaged or leaking canisters over the next few decades while the waste remains on site for a required period of cooling.”

Headrick is co-founder of San Clemente Green, an environmental group.

The task force released a report in June that found Southern California Edison “does not have an optimal and qualified long-term plan for inspection, maintenance, monitoring, or repair procedures.”

Andrea Kock, the director of the division of fuel management at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said hot cells are not required at their spent fuel storage facilities because it is unlikely you would need one to fix a problem with a canister. 

“Some facilities might choose to have a hot cell to provide them more flexibility in the unlikely event that that’s needed, but it’s not something that we require or that we think is needed for safety,” Kock said.

Members of Public Watchdogs, a group based in San Diego that works to hold government agencies accountable, also expressed concern about what would happen to the canisters if the San Onofre station floods. They said the area the station is located in is vulnerable to such disasters.

“The situation I’m describing is not an if situation, it’s a when situation. Flooding will occur. When flooding occurs cooling will be lost to all 73 canisters due to stagnant water, and hundreds of pounds of salt blocking all cooling from every canister,” Paul Blanch, a subject matter expert with Public Watchdogs, said at the meeting.

Blanch described himself as a professional engineer in California with more than 50 years of nuclear experience. He added that a flooding event will likely result in the canisters creating a radioactive fog over the site.

Tom Palmisano, Edison’s vice president for decommissioning, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has analyzed the Holtec system used at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) for flooding as part of its licensing process. 

“In 2015, the (spent fuel storage) site at SONGS was thoroughly reviewed by the Coastal Commission staff for flooding, tsunami and other such environmental effects and found to be an acceptable site,” Palmisano said.

While commissioners, including Chair Steve Padilla and commission staff, supported Edison’s plan they also expressed concern in keeping used nuclear fuel at San Onofre.

“I really do think that we need to continue to be a major voice and presence in the broader conversation about identifying a permanent offsite repository,” Padilla said.

“This type of material has no business being in the coastal zone of California.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him or on Twitter @ElattarHosam

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