By Eric Heinz 

Public Watchdogs, a nonprofit organization that advocates against the current operations at San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS), recently released its first public service announcement in a video that portrayed the remaining two domes at the offline nuclear power plant as ticking time bombs.

The pointedly critical ad is related to the spent nuclear fuel that’s being stored on-site about 100 feet from the ocean in dry cask canisters.

“What we’re trying to do is raise awareness of the fact that there is nuclear waste on the beach, and we’re asking people to identify themselves and help educate them a little bit more about the issues,” said Charles Langley, executive director of Public Watchdogs. “Some people love the idea that we have 3.6 million pounds in containers that are only guaranteed to last 25 years.”

The canisters have a 40-year guarentee from the manufacturer, Holtec, which the company argues could last even longer. The hope among all involved is that the canisters will be moved to safe and permanent repositories when the federal government allows that. But when that will happen remains to be seen.

A series of public service announcements from the nonprofit advocacy group Public Watchdogs was first released on Feb. 26. The group plans to broadcast more announcements in the near future. Photo: Screenshot extracted from YouTube/Public Watchdogs
A series of public service announcements from the nonprofit advocacy group Public Watchdogs was first released on Feb. 26. The group plans to broadcast more announcements in the near future. Photo: Screenshot extracted from YouTube/Public Watchdogs

Southern California Edison, the majority owner and operator of SONGS, responded by denouncing the video.

“The cartoonish Public Watchdogs video reveals the group is not a serious, nor credible, participant in the effort to move spent nuclear fuel away from the San Onofre nuclear plant (SONGS),” a statement from Edison read.

The energy company said spent nuclear fuel has been securely stored at SONGS since 1970.

“Right now, almost 20 percent of SONGS’ spent nuclear fuel is qualified for shipment to an approved off-site repository; more than three-quarters will be ready for shipment by the end of 2020,” the release stated. “Stakeholders and the public truly concerned about long-term spent fuel storage solutions will work productively to make that happen. Those who simply want to use the issue to fundraise by misleading people with irresponsible videos designed to exploit existing community concerns, play on unfounded fears, and line the pockets of an organization that trades in false narratives and public anxiety, are detrimental to these efforts.”

Public Watchdogs officials are fearful the spent nuclear waste could become threatening should the stainless steel that holds the cooling cesium inside the canisters corrode, exacerbated by the proximity to the Pacific Ocean. If that happens, they argue, the helium that’s inside the  canisters could leak out, potentially causing radiological fires—a chain of events that has been described by activists as “Chernobyl in a can.”

That sounds terrifying, but nuclear experts dispute that it’s extremely unlikely to happen.

Public Watchdogs said this was the first of a series of PSAs it’s running with assistance from Focuscom, a marketing and public relations company in San Diego County.

Public Watchdogs has put together a petition that asks Gov. Gavin Newsom to revoke the permits granted to Edison for the storage of spent nuclear fuel issued by the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission.

As far as the next planned PSAs, Langley said they’re going to home in on what this could mean for future generations should the fuel remain.

“People say that it’s safe for now and stored in containers for 25 years, but what about the next generation?” Langley said.

Public Watchdogs is currently in litigation with Edison over the storage of spent nuclear fuel near the coastline.

Langley said he’s been encouraged by the recent actions of Rep. Mike Levin, who started a task force specifically aimed at dealing with the spent fuel at SONGS.

“He’s the first politician to step up to the plate and take notice of this and create, hopefully, a truly vibrant public discussion and debate about what’s going on at the beach,” Langley said.

All of the entities have stated multiple times over the past six years that they don’t want the spent nuclear fuel to remain here.

“Southern California Edison strongly urges the federal government to fulfill its obligation to open a permanent spent fuel repository or license a consolidated interim storage site to accept this fuel,” the release from the energy company stated.

Article updated for clarity on Wednesday, March 7. 

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comments (3)

  • We’ve just posted responses to questions received from the public at the Nov. 29 Community Engagement Panel meeting. One of those responses is important for this discussion:

    If a canister is breached, is a zirconium fire and/or hydrogen explosion possible? Can fuel cladding deteriorate due to excess heat build-up in the canister while in dry storage? (Gene S.) (Sarah B.)

    No. SCE addressed this topic during the 3rd Quarter Community Engagement Panel meeting on Sept. 14, 2017. In the unlikely event of a through-wall crack in a loaded multipurpose canister, there would be minimal to no impact to the site or public:

    *There would be an initial inert release of helium
    *Any fission gases that did escape would diffuse into the air and never reach site boundaries
    *There are no high-pressure forces in the canister to propel contamination into the environment
    *Solid fission products such as the fuel pellets would remain in fuel rods in the canister

    And finally, the internal temperature of the used nuclear fuel is such that there is not the level of extreme heat required to ignite such a fire nor cause an explosion

    Scientific American explained the process of how a hydrogen explosion can occur in relation to what happened at Fukushima, at the time an operating nuclear plant. “The high temperatures that the fuel rods create boil water and continually turn it into steam. If no fresh water is introduced to cool the rods then they continue to heat up. Once the rods reach more than (2192 degrees Fahrenheit), the zirconium will interact with the steam and split the hydrogen from the water. That hydrogen can then be released from the reactor core and containment vessel and, if it accumulates in sufficient quantities—concentrations of 4 percent or more in the air—it can explode…”

    These conditions cannot occur at SONGS. This is because spent fuel rods are cooled sufficiently before being placed into canisters, eliminating the high heat source (the fuel rods could not reach 2192 degrees Fahrenheit). In addition, there is no water within the canisters, only helium, and so no potential hydrogen source.

    The link to all questions and answers is here:
    https://www.songscommunity.com/community-engagement/meetings/questions-from-the-public-for-the-nov-29-2018-cep-meeting

    Thank you.

  • Edison has a failed track record when it comes to predicting unexpected outcomes, either intentionally or by overly optimistic and wishful thinking. They still continue to work with no contingency plan in case there is a loss of containment in of one of these canisters which were only intended for temporary use. It is time to get independent scientist on solving real fact based solutions, not just profit driven corporations. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) recommends spent nuclear fuel and its containment must be monitored and maintained in dry storage in a manner to prevent hydrogen gas explosions for both short-term and long-term storage and transport. This is not currently being done and cannot be done with the thin-wall welded canisters. It can only be done with thick-wall bolted lid casks, like those used in most of the world and at some US facilities. See NWTRB report to the United States Congress and the Secretary of Energy, Management And Disposal Of US Department Of Energy Spent Nuclear Fuel, NWTRB, December 2017.. See SanOnofreSafety.org for more information.

  • Gary, you and the other dishonest, anti-nuke crack-pots have a FAILED track record when it comes to providing accurate information to the public. YOU lied when you told news gal, Vikki Vargas, that SCE planned to rotate canisters in and out and despite being told repeatedly including in SCE’s response above, still peddle the lie that canisters are susceptible to hydrogen explosions.

    Contrary to your fact-free statements, canisters ARE monitored and maintained and they are double welded shut, a far superior sealing mechanism to that of the bolted lid casks which are REQUIRED to have a helium monitoring system precisely because a mechanical seal is inferior to a weld.

    You and your leader Gilmore continue to deliberately ignore the fact that the casks you prefer are NOT licensed for storage in the US and not only are NOT licensed for transport here, were refused a license by the NRC because of fears they might shatter if dropped in cold weather. They are also too heavy for SONGS’ crane equipment. Even your fellow anti-nuke, Ray Lutz, recognizes that these unlicensed casks will never be used at SONGS, why can’t you?

    “…like those used in most of the world and at some US facilities.”

    This is more dishonesty from you because only one US site has any of these bolted casks which were ordered long ago as you are well aware and the canister based system SCE is using is the dominant mechanism for storage in the world. Holtec alone has orders from all over the world. In addition, the one US plant that has some casks, 8 of them, never ordered any more and is stuck with the ones they have because there is NO license to ship. Is this YOUR ultimate goal, for SONGS to be stuck with casks they can’t transport out? Is this so that you can continue to complain and agitate against the nuclear industry in an effort to keep your name in the news? Pathetic.

    Stop misinforming the public and stop engaging in anti-nuclear hysteria and alarmism. I will continue to call you out on your dishonesty and lack of integrity as long as you continue in your efforts to hoodwink the citizens of this and nearby counties.

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