08 • 27 • 2019
Terrifying Fault Lines, Rising Seas and Eroding Bluffs? Maybe Not the Best Places for Nuclear Waste
Fun facts about Humboldt Bay, which sits tucked along the far north coast of California about 100 miles south of the Oregon border:
- It’s the second largest estuary in California and largest protected body of water between San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound.
- The bay is home to more than 700 species of plants, invertebrates, fish and birds and supports hundreds of thousands of migrating birds.
- More than half of all oysters farmed in California come from Humboldt Bay.
Less-fun facts about Humboldt Bay:
- The rate of sea level rise here is twice the state average.
- The southern end of the Cascadia subduction zone, which stretches from Cape Mendocino north to Canada, lies just offshore of Humboldt Bay. (“Subduction” refers to the convergence of tectonic plates when one plate moves under another, sinking into the Earth’s mantle; the world’s largest earthquakes are associated with subduction zones.)
- Humboldt Bay is the site of the nation’s first commercial nuclear power plant, built in King Salmon and operational from 1963 to 1976; Pacific Gas & Electric undertook decommissioning beginning in 2009.
- All the high-level radioactive waste produced there is now stored in underground casks on a bluff at King Salmon about 45 feet above sea level and only 115 horizontal feet from Humboldt Bay on an eroding bluff.
We know that storing nuclear waste along the coast is a terrible idea. Spent nuclear fuel is, in fact, a huge problem all over the United States, including inland locations. When the power plants were built, experts assumed that eventually they’d figure out a way to reprocess the used fuel rods, which could be stored in cooling pools temporarily. Unfortunately, we’ve ended up in a place where more than 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel are dispersed in 75 “temporary” locations throughout the country.
In California, that means the three coastal nuclear power plants have resulted – or will result – in nuclear waste being stored in areas variously vulnerable to sea level rise, tsunamis, earthquakes and eroding bluffs. PG&E’s Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, is the only currently operating nuclear power plant in the state. In 2016, with support from environmental groups and labor organizations, PG&E agreed to cease operating the plant when the company’s leases expire in 2024 and 2025.
Meanwhile, down at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which shut down in 2012, Surfrider staff have been active at the local, state and federal level to advance stronger policies for onsite safety, monitoring, public notification and eventual offsite transportation.
To help speed things along, Rep. Mike Levin (D – San Juan Capistrano) introduced a bill this year 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. Levin's bill 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 and other lawmakers have also asked the federal government for $25 million to fund an interim storage program for nuclear waste from across the country.
But none of that is why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called a meeting in Eureka this week.
The purpose of Monday night’s meeting was to collect community input about the Community Advisory Board’s (CAB) efforts to assist with the Humboldt Bay Power Plant’s decommissioning. CABs typically consist of an organized group of citizens interested in safe decommissioning practices and spent fuel management, and are usually sponsored by the local licensee or mandated by the state legislature. Responsibilities may include reviewing decommissioning plans, providing feedback, serving as a forum for public education, making recommendations and considering plans for future reuse of the site.
Ultimately, after similar meetings across the country, the NRC will create a report for Congress to guide the development of future community advisory boards. Community members generally praised PG&E’s engagement, but called for better education of board members. “Any future CAB should have an educational framework,” longtime Humboldt Bay CAB member Mike Manetas said. “It’s such a complex and complicated issue.”
Michael Welch, also a CAB member since the group’s inception, added that while Humboldt’s CAB provides a good model for future boards, the NRC should find a way to “put teeth” into recommendations made by the CABs, explaining, “We need transparency and action based on what the CAB is suggesting.”
Despite the NRC’s Bruce Watson urging speakers to only opine on what makes for best practices for CABs tasked with decommissioning, members of the public illustrated that addressing community anxieties around the nuclear waste will continue to be an integral part of the conversation.
Jen Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper, CAB member since 2013 and longtime Surfrider ally, sent an email blast out prior to the meeting, noting that the underground casks containing the spent fuel rods and dismantled nuclear reactor were designed to last about 50 years, and the PG&E Decommissioning Fund is only funded through 2025.
“What will happen after that?” Kalt asked. “What are the NRC's plans in case of an emergency?” At the meeting, she highlighted the risks posed by sea level rise, relaying how planners ignored the North Spit tidal gauge measurements when building the storage facility that would house the spent fuel. The readings spun so far above expectations that researchers assumed the gauge was wrong – and then further studies proved the opposite. Not only is the sea rising, but the lands around Humboldt Bay are sinking. “King Salmon is literally ground zero,” Kalt said.
She also advocated that the CAB continue as long as the casks remain on site, noting that Baykeeper and other organizations play a critical role in answering questions from the public regarding timelines, contingency planning and other concerns.
Among those other concerns sits the very real fear about what will happen – and to whom responsibilities for the site will fall – if and when PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, pulls out.
Humboldt County’s First District Supervisor Rex Bohn commented that the utility would “be okay,” while expressing hope that “the people they leave behind are as responsive.”
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone called the storage casks “awesome” but the site “horrible.” As long as the nuclear waste remains, the decommissioning is not at the “end” for the community, he continued. “We need to figure out where to move it to – this is a really bad place.” Madone then launched into a recounting of the giant wave that took out the Trinidad Lighthouse in 1914 and noted that the last Cascadian subduction zone quake happened 300 years ago. Given that experts say these quakes occur every 300 to 500 years, he said, “The data suggests we’re due for another.”