1,800 tons of radioactive waste has an ocean view and nowhere to go


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Categories: Energy

The massive, 150-ton turbines have stopped spinning. The mile-long cooling pipes that extend into the Pacific will likely become undersea relics. High voltage that once energized the homes of more than a million Californians is down to zero.

But the San Onofre nuclear power plant will loom for a long time as a landmark, its 1,800 tons of lethal radioactive waste stored on the edge of the Pacific and within sight of the busy 5 Freeway.

Across the site, deep pools of water and massive concrete casks confine high-power gamma radiation and other forms of radioactivity emitted by 890,000 spent fuel rods that nobody wants there.

And like the other 79,000 tons of spent fuel spread across the nation, San Onofre’s nuclear waste has nowhere to go.

The nation’s inability to find a permanent home for the dangerous byproduct of its 50-year-adventure in nuclear energy represents one of the biggest and longest running policy failures in federal government history.

Now, the Trump administration and Congress are proposing a fast track fix. The new plan aims, after decades of delays, to move the waste to one or more temporary central storage sites that would hold it until a geologic repository can be built in Nevada or somewhere else.

But the new strategy faces many of the same challenges that have dogged past efforts, leaving some experts to doubt that it can succeed.

America’s nuclear waste failure

The shuttered San Onofre facility — not withstanding its overlook of prime surf breaks — is similar to about a dozen other former nuclear power plants nationwide that now have to babysit waste to prevent natural disasters, human errors or terrorist plots from causing an environmental or health catastrophe.

Though utilities and government regulators say such risks are remote, they have inflamed public fear at least since 1979’s Three Mile Island reactor accident in Pennsylvania.

The sites are located on the scenic shores of northern Lake Michigan, along with a bucolic river in Maine, on the high plateau of Colorado and along the densely populated Eastern Seaboard — each environmentally sensitive for different reasons.

No one wants that waste near them — including officials in the sleepy beach town of San Clemente, just north of San Onofre. Even Southern California Edison Co. officials, while insisting the waste is safe, agree it should be moved as soon as possible.

“It doesn’t make any sense to store the fuel at all these sites,” said Thomas Palmisano, chief nuclear officer at the Southern California Edison plant. “The public doesn’t want the spent fuel here. Well, the fuel is here.”

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