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They’re called king tides:

Ocean waves that grow especially tall a few times during the year, rumbling against the California coast and offering a glimpse into future sea level rise and a reshaping shoreline, according to state coastal regulators.

Those tides rolled up to San Onofre last weekend, where a sea wall stands to protect what nearby communities fear is a man-made disaster in waiting: the decommissioned but still radioactive San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

The following week, local officials and activists convened a set of dueling community forums that well capture the ongoing dispute over what exact risk the nuclear waste sitting at SONGS poses to all life within the area joining Orange and San Diego counties. 

The debate centers on the integrity of SONGS’ nuclear waste storage system, which has been criticized as prone to failure and an ecological and human health hazard.

Meanwhile SONGS’ operator company, Southern California Edison, says the risk of radiation poisoning is low for surrounding communities and the storage system’s integrity is backed by science.

One Nov. 19 forum hosted by nuclear watchdogs saw some of their fears echoed back to them by Dr. Ian Fairlie, a radiation biologist in London who once headed the Secretariat of the UK Government’s CERRIE committee on internal radiation risks.

Later that same day, Edison’s own, regularly-held Community Engagement Panel meeting sought to again dispel public qualms about the nuclear waste. 

Specifically, it dismissed fears that sea level rise could swamp the facility, which sits right on the coastline. Members of the public laid out those concerns at an Aug. 20 panel meeting, and the comments can be read here.

There are a few things keeping the ocean from the site’s nuclear storage, for now. A seawall stands in front of SONGS and a pad of cement shields the nuclear storage from a table of groundwater below. The table is anticipated to rise as sea levels do. 

Ron Pontes, an Edison’s manager of environmental strategy, said during the meeting the sea wall is in good condition and the cement below the nuclear storage canisters is 3 feet thick.

“There’s a lot of concern that eventually, water level does get close to the bottom of the pad, but even if the bottom was submerged in groundwater, we don’t see that as a concern because the fuel canisters are located on top of the 3-foot pad … the concrete is sufficiently thick,” he said.

Pontes cited a SONGS study projecting both fronts could withstand even the most extreme, worst-case scenarios of sea level rise through the year 2050. 

Yet environmentalists are looking at sea level rise’s impacts on coastlines well into 2100. Edison had previously argued studies into that time frame aren’t necessary. 

Company spokesman John Dobken said to Voice of OC on Nov. 19: “If the fuel remains on site longer (than 2050), we will extend our studies.”

The plant’s energy production ceased after a steam generator breakdown prompted government investigations and, ultimately, the beginning of SONGS’ decommissioning process nearly a decade ago. 

Read: Boxer Seeks Investigation Into Changes at San Onofre / Local Officials Join Activists in Caution Over San Onofre

There’s deep disagreement about what to do with the leftover nuclear waste, all 1,800 metric tons of which are in dry storage and embedded in concrete. 

The spent fuel contains radioactive isotopes like Cesium-137, the amount of which critics say is comparable to levels released during the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Dobken said the plant isn’t operating anymore, thus the conditions aren’t in place to form a plume that could pose risks to surrounding communities. Though locals have long feared the possibility of terrorists targeting the facility.

King tides only occurs twice a year with the following tides expected to continue through Nov. 16 and will return from Dec. 13 through Dec. 15. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

The waste will remain on site as Edison and the overhead regulatory agencies in play await the creation of a long-anticipated national repository, a final resting place for all the country’s spent nuclear fuel, wherever authorities decide to put it.

It’s been decades since the enactment of that promise, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, and some are anxious that a permanent federal location won’t spring up before the prospect of Edison’s current nuclear storage canisters failing.

States’ refusals to be the site of that repository — most notably, a dropped plan for one in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain — creates a national quandary, with radioactive materials stacking up all over the U.S. and local jurisdictions anxious to be rid of them.

The contention between watchdogs and Edison is the type of dry storage the company chose.

Critics say the company has cheaped out through more cost-efficient, but less safe, thin-walled HOLTEC canisters, feared to be more prone to cracking and corrosion from conditions like the plant’s salty seaside locale. Instead, watchdogs have called for the use of thicker casks they say would better stave off the risk of failure and exposure.

Fairlie at the Nov. 19 forum, hosted by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation and local nuclear safety groups, said the current canisters in use by Edison are “not very good – they are cheap … 5/8ths of an inch thick, prone to cracking.”

They’re “designed to be temporary and they’re not really robust from external attack in my view,” he said, adding “it would be much, much, much better” for the spent fuel to be stored in a thicker cask — “Unlikely to be subject to cracks.” The only problem? “They’re very expensive.”

King tides consistently broke on the rip rocks near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Clemente on Nov. 15, 2020. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

Activists also protested the removal of underwater cooling pools at the facility, which they argue would be the region’s only chance at a safe transfer of radioactive fuel should a canister need to be replaced.

These are all points that Edison has rejected, most recently in a public back-and-forth between Dobken and San Onofre watchdog Sarah Mosko in the Voice of OC’s Op-Ed section. 

Read the Op-Ed battle here.

Dobken maintains the company has sufficient technological capabilities to repair any cracks, should they appear, within the current canisters in use. 

He also pushed back on calls for the retention of the cooling pools, arguing the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t require them for decommissioned generating stations, and that the pools would stifle efforts to “restore the site for future other uses.”

Yet critics say an onsite worker’s 2018 whistleblower claim belies Edison’s storage safety assertions. That claim, regarding the mishandling of a waste storage canister, resulted in a hefty fine against Edison by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Asked why Edison wouldn’t go that extra mile for thicker casks, Dobken said there isn’t any U.S. supply of such containers that meet the company’s or regulatory agencies’ standards. 

“There’s nothing that could occur that would affect anybody basically outside the fence line of San Onofre,” Dobken said. “All the nuclear fuel now is in dry storage – even if you had a microscopic crack in the canister, there’s no force inside the canister to propel anything out.”

Fairlie discouraged those at the forum and nearby residents from sticking around to find out. 

“That might cause distress to people, and I’m sorry if it does, but in my view it’s better to be aware of the dangers than to live in ignorant bliss,” he said. “It really is.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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