SUPPORT THIS INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM
The article you’re about to read is from our reporters doing their important work — investigating, researching, and writing their stories. We want to provide informative and inspirational stories that connect you to the people, issues and opportunities within our community. Journalism requires lots of resources. Today, our business model has been interrupted by the pandemic; the vast majority of our advertisers’ businesses have been impacted. That’s why the SC Times is now turning to you for financial support. Learn more about our new Insider’s program here. Thank you.
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.
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.