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By Eric Heinz
On Wednesday, June 22, at the San Juan Capistrano Community Center, the Community Engagement Panel—a collection of city representatives, nuclear experts and SCE officials that hosts quarterly discussions about the decommissioning of SONGS—talked about some of the roadblocks and opportunities of eventually moving spent nuclear fuel off the oceanside bluffs.
It seemed as though everyone wanted the same thing: no spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre. However, the questions of when it can be moved, in what method, how safe the proposed canisters for fuel are and how to transport the fuel, have been items of contention.
But the Department of Energy (DOE) has been making efforts to persuade federal legislators that it is prepared to store the fuel at sites until permanent facilities can be established, according to John Kotek, the U.S. Department of Energy acting assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, who was present at the meeting.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, CA-49, submitted a prerecorded video that addressed the legislative moves he and other sponsors to his bill are making that would enable the DOE to move the spent fuel to consolidated interim storage sites. Currently, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act does not allow for such storage.
Issa said a promise to residents who have to deal with spent nuclear fuel near them has been broken by the federal government.
Members of Secure Nuclear Waste, an advocacy group pushing to move the fuel as soon as possible and prohibit SCE from storing the fuel onsite, have been vocal in recent weeks and have gathered supporters to try to abolish the permit SCE received from the California Coastal Commission to store the fuel. Such supporters include San Juan Mayor Pam Patterson, who has denounced much of the information regarding security and storage at SONGS she’s been given from SCE officials.
Other factors inhibit the immediate removal of waste. For example, the waste from the former Unit 1 dry cannot be shipped until 2018 at the earliest and 2030 at the latest because of the stainless steel material used to store it, an “outdated” method that retains harmful radioactivity, according to Tom Palmisano, the vice president of decommissioning and chief nuclear officer at SONGS.
Kotek said the DOE has requested $75 million in funding from Congress to begin exploring consent-based storage facilities. Through a series of public meetings, the DOE has been looking for input from communities to design a process to move the fuel when it’s ready.
“That’s going to be one of the elements of any negotiation with a community, state or tribe that’s going to be interested in investigating whether they might want to be a host community,” Kotek said. “We’re going to look at what kind of benefits, what sort of incentives would make this something that’s of interest to them, but that comes later down the road.”
One example is infrastructure that the federal government improved in New Mexico when the state constructed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).
“There are many examples in the U.S. and other countries of getting benefits for entering an agreement for this,” Kotek said. “We’re trying to set up a process that can lead to success, so over time what we’re going to need is the resources and the authorities required to actually implement the process we’re engaging in. That will require work with Congress and other stakeholders to ensure we’ll be able to move forward, but those are the next steps. Right now we’re moving forward with designing a process that we hope to implement beginning next year.”
Currently there are talks about trying to transfer the spent fuel to interim storage facilities in New Mexico or Texas, but no formal agreements have been made at this time, SCE spokesperson Maureen Brown said.