11 • 18 • 2015

Get Nuclear Waste Off The Coast!

Ensuring that the 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear waste fuel rods at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) are safely relocated.

Surfrider is opposed to permanent or long-term storage of radioactive waste at the deactivated San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) due to its proximity to the coastline, susceptibility to geological instability and location within a densely populated area. Nearly 8 million people reside in the vicinity, and it is directly adjacent to one of the United States’ busiest highways. Surfrider is actively engaged in advocating to remove the waste as quickly as possible to a federally approved, geologically secure, consent based permanent repository within a specific timeline.

Take Action now! Click here to contact your federal representatives.



SONGS is located on a coastal bluff in between two sections of San Onofre State Beach, just south of San Clemente. SONGS has always been exposed to the risks of earthquakes (the Newport-Inglewood-Rose Canyon fault zone lies just offshore), bluff erosion, storm surge and wave events. Likewise, its location in highly populated Southern California has not changed since the first unit began operation in 1968.

Locating a nuclear power plant at this site was a bad idea from the start. Although the plant was permanently retired in 2013, it is still home to the radioactive material (spent fuel rods) that helped feed Southern California’s energy demand for the last 45-plus years.

Why hasn’t the radioactive waste been moved?

There are two very significant reasons why the spent fuel is still being stored onsite at San Onofre. First, nuclear spent fuel requires time to cool to decrease its radioactivity and increase its stability, allowing for transfer to more secure storage and eventually transport to an offsite storage location. It is not yet feasible nor safe to move all of the canisters containing spent fuel, which require a minimum cooling period of about five years (though some fuel requires more time). Second, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission must designate a secure offsite location for safe long-term storage of nuclear material, and no such site presently exists in the United States.

San Onofre is not the only nuclear facility going through the decommissioning process. There are several decommissioned nuclear facilities waiting for approved final resting places for their spent nuclear fuel.

In October 2016, the California Coastal Commission approved an application by Southern California Edison (SCE) to store radioactive waste at SONGS in onsite independent spent fuel storage installations (ISFSI). This facility was constructed at SONGS in 2017 and waste began the transfer to the ISFSI in early 2018. This allowed for the transfer of spent fuel assemblies from the cooling pools, where they previously resided for decades longer than the pools were designed for, to dry storage casks or “canisters”, which are steel cylinders filled with inert gas and placed into a concrete “monoloth”. The transfer process from pools to canisters was completed in 2020. For more on this see: SCE is now in the process of disassembling and dismantling the majority of above ground structures onsite, including the domes, cooling pools, support buildings and more (learn more here). The ISFSI however, will remain trapped onsite until there is federal action.

Federal Legislation

At the federal level, there are at least three bills currently proposed that attempt to address the backlog of nuclear material awaiting permanent relocation:

On May 23, 2019 the congressman covering the jurisdiction containing SONGS, Rep. Mike Levin (CA-49), introduced a bill that would prioritize the removal of spent nuclear fuel from the country's decommissioned nuclear sites. Under current legislation, the oldest sites are first in line to have their spent fuel collected and transported offsite. Rep. Levin's bill, the Spent Fuel Prioritization Act (H.R. 2995), would prioritize sites that are already decommissioned or in the process of decommissioning, are in densely populated areas, and are at the highest risk to be affected by earthquakes. Rep. Levin stated that based on his proposed prioritization, the spent fuel at SONGS would be first in line to be collected as it is the only site in the U.S. that has “the seismic risk, the population density, and is a decommissioning site.” Even when the spent nuclear fuel is queued up, however; there is currently nowhere for it to go permanently. Levin and other lawmakers have asked the federal government for $25 million to fund an interim storage program for nuclear waste from across the country, but it is unknown how much longer the spent fuel will sit at nuclear reactor sites across the country, including at SONGS.

To take additional action on the SONGS nuclear fuel storage issue, Rep. Levin has developed a Task Force. The SONGS Task Force had its first meeting on April 25, 2019 and contains a Policy Committee and Technical Committee. The Policy Committee was formed to address stakeholder concerns on the management of spent nuclear fuel at SONGS, and the Technical Committee aims to address key technical concerns regarding the safe storage of waste while onsite at SONGS, as well as eventual transportation offsite. Surfrider is honored to hold two seats on the Task Force, with our legal director, Angela Howe, on the Policy Committee, and our staff scientist, Katie Day on the Technical Committee. You can read more about Surfrider’s participation on the Task Force and the published a report here

On April 30, 2019 Senator Lisa Murkowksi (R-AK), along with Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TE) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), introduced Bill S. 1234, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2019, that would establish a Nuclear Waste Administration. The new executive agency would be responsible for the permanent disposal of all of the nation's nuclear waste, disposing the waste in a way that protects public health and safety of the environment. The proposed legislation also calls for the construction and operation of one or more interim storage facilities where nuclear waste can temporarily be stored (often referred to as consolidated interim storage), and a repository where the waste can permanently be stored. This bill also prioritizes the need for consent from host communities, allowing affected communities to decide whether to host a facility, and on what terms. This would require input from affected state and local governments, and Indian tribes. The authors intend the passage of this bill to be a much-needed initial step in moving nuclear waste from reactor sites across the country to a safer, permanent location. So far, the bill has just been introduced and no further actions have been taken.

State Legislation

Assembly Bill No. 1207 (AB-1207) was introduced to the California Legislature in February 2017 by Assembly Member Bill Brough (R-Dana Point). The proposed bill aims to supplement existing State legislation on the transportation of hazardous radioactive material (§ 114820). Specifically, the proposed bill would require the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission to conduct a study to assess the efficacy of current regulations in minimizing the risks to public health and safety resulting from the transportation of hazardous radioactive materials.


In November 2015, Citizens Oversight filed a lawsuit against SCE, challenging their 2015 Coastal Commission permit that allows them to store spent fuel on site. The Plaintiff’s goal was to get the waste stored offsite. On August 29, the lawsuit settled and SCE agreed to several terms. As part of the agreement, SCE committed to spending $4 million to carry out their commitments under the agreement, including to hire an expert panel for transport and relocation of the waste, and for development of a contingency plan for cracked or damaged canisters. SCE will take “commercially reasonable” efforts to relocate to either a CISF, such as Holtec or Eddy Lea Energy’s proposed CIS in New Mexico and Waste Control Specialists’ proposed CISF in Texas, or an expanded ISFSI at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station – although Palo Verde has rejected that idea multiple times. SCE will have to provide Citizens Oversight with monthly progress reports on its efforts. However, the agreement did not stipulate a deadline for when the waste must be removed from San Onofre. In 2021, the Samuel Lawerence Foundation also attempted a lawsuit but this time against the California Coastal Commission, arguing against their decision to approve the dismantling of spent fuel pools. As of July 2021, the LA County court judge issued a tentative decision rejecting the lawsuit.

Moving Forward

Since it appears that technical and political considerations make siting, approval and construction of a long-term nuclear waste storage facility very unlikely in the foreseeable future, the focus has turned to establishing a process to select a location, approve and build one or more “interim consolidated storage facilities” where the nuclear waste from nuclear power plants across the United States can be safely stored for a few decades. Surfrider Foundation believes this search should be coupled with the development of a plan for long-term, permanent storage.

Surfrider Foundation will continue to advocate for the removal of the nuclear material away from the bluffs of San Onofre as soon as feasibly possible. There is no question that there are better and safer locations for this material than along the densely populated coastline of earthquake-riddled southern California.

  • Congress must take action to secure a location for a geologic repository deep underground that isolates this radioactive storage from the biosphere. We need legislation that not only authorizes new contracts for interim consolidated storage facilities, but also requires a final resting place to be sited and a mandatory timeline for solid waste transport and permanent storage. A panel of experts on nuclear waste hazards, transport and storage should be utilized to address the issue as well.

  • We call upon Congress to initiate a consent-based siting process with a mandatory timeline and resolution date for when this nuclear waste will be permanently removed from San Onofre beach.

  • Take action by signing Surfrider’s action alert: Tell Congress to Get Nuclear Waste Off the Beach at San Onofre.

  • For the latest update, visit the SONGS Community Engagement website and view the most recent Community Engagement Panel Meeting.

Coastal Preservation