Coastal Preservation, Legal, Ocean Protection
May 24 2019

Movement at SONGS: Edison Approved to Restart Nuclear Fuel Transfer & Federal Legislation Introduced

by Katie Day and Nolan Fargo

After nine months of a quasi-mandatory, quasi-voluntary stall at the coastal San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), Southern California Edison just got approved to restart the transfer process of spent nuclear fuel from cooling pools to dry storage. In the same week, Congressman Mike Levin (D-CA) introduced a new bill to reprioritize waste removal based on decommissioning status, population density, and geological risk, putting SONGS at the front of the line.

The Surfrider Foundation is strongly 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. Surfrider recognizes that the waste needs to be cooled onsite before it's moved and we demand that this is done as safely as possible, while also advocating that the waste is moved as soon as possible to a consent-based, geologically stable permanent location away from the coast.

Back in August 2018, inadequately trained and supervised Edison contractors almost dropped a canister loaded with 37 spent fuel assemblies while trying to download into an outdoor nuclear waste storage facility at SONGS. Fortunately contractors were able to prevent an 18-ft fall from occurring; however, this near-drop brought national awareness to the widespread negligence and inadequacies in training and supervision at the plant, triggering an official review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

In March, the NRC found Edison guilty of Level 2 and Level 3 violations, resulting in a civil penalty of $116,000 and mandatory corrective actions including new training procedures and oversight protocols. The other issue identified was the fact that canisters were getting scratched during the download process, something that was never assessed in the canister’s Final Safety Evaluation Report (called the FSAR) or approved by the NRC. So even after new protocols were approved, the waste transfer continued to be on hold until the NRC could ensure that the scratching would not significantly impact the safety and integrity of the spent fuel canisters.

This week, the NRC announced that Edison can “safely resume” the transfer of waste at SONGS. Unfortunately, their announcement stated that this decision was made based on information that Edison provided, not information or assessments provided by an independent third party. While the NRC generally functions on the premise of nuclear plants self-regulating and self-reporting, Edison’s long track record of cutting corners and missing the mark highlight the need for more direct oversight from the NRC. Details of this assessment and decision, as well as an opportunity to provide public comment will take place during an NRC webinar on June 3, from 12-1 PM PT. Register for the NRC webinar here to learn more about next steps and timeline.

Additionally, in the past month, two federal bills pertaining to nuclear legislation have been introduced in Congress, including the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2019 in the Senate, and the Spent Fuel Reprioritization Act in the House. While there is still much that needs to be done to address the nation’s spent fuel problem, these legislative actions act as important steps to elevate this issue as a federal priority,

Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2019

On April 30, 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.

All disposal costs, including construction and operation of storage sites, and transportation of the waste, would be borne by those who generated the waste in the first place. 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.

Spent Fuel Prioritization Act

On May 23, the congressman covering the jurisdiction containing SONGS, Rep. Mike Levin, 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, which he calls "Spent Fuel Prioritization" 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. 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. The federal government has been unsuccessful in finding a permanent location where the nation's spent fuel can be stored. 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.

Rep. Levin’s Congressional Task Force

To take additional action on the SONGS nuclear fuel storage issue, Rep. Levin has developed a Task ForceThe SONGS Task Force had its first meeting on April 25, 2019 and contains a Policy Committee and Technical Committee. The Policy Committee will address stakeholder concerns on the management of spent nuclear fuel at SONGS, and the Technical Committee will aim 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.