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Navy ponders what to do with site of San Onofre nuclear facility

A view of the 27-foot sea wall with San Onofre State Beach in the background at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in May 2017.

ALLEN J. SCHABEN/THE LOS ANGELES TIMES (TNS)

By ROB NIKOLEWSKI | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 4, 2017

The anxiety over the 3.55 million tons of nuclear waste sitting at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) dominates most of the discussion about the future of the site.

After all, the spent fuel is located in what many say is the most vulnerable site imaginable — about 100 feet from the Pacific Ocean, next to one of the most heavily traveled freeways in the country (Interstate 5), in an area with a history of seismic activity and within a 50-mile radius of where 8.4 million people live.

But often overlooked is what will eventually happen to the land where the plant currently sits, which is carved out of an 85-acre chunk of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, owned by the U.S. Navy.

Back in 1964, an easement was issued by the Department of the Navy to Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to construct SONGS.

“Our interest, plainly stated, is the safe, expeditious closure, dismantling, clean-up and return of the land so we can use it for training,” Tom Caughlan, the regional liaison officer for the Marine Corps, said Thursday night in Laguna Hills at the most recent meeting of the SONGS Community Engagement Panel. “That’s our area of expertise.”

Caughlan, a retired Marine colonel who is also a Community Engagement Panel member, said specifics will be worked out in conjunction with federal environmental regulations as the plant completes its process of being decommissioned.

“We will start moving forward, I would say, incrementally,” Caughlan told the Union-Tribune during a break in Thursday’s meeting. “This will be an iterative process. It will not be, bang, here’s our plan … The basic function is training.”

Until that day comes, some have argued for moving the nuclear waste at SONGS to a location within the premises of Camp Pendleton that is farther from the ocean as a way to enhance safety.

During a cantankerous public comment period, William Alley of San Diego, who has written a book with his wife Rosemarie Alley about the problems of handing nuclear waste, said the Navy should look at moving SONGS waste to locations that include a mesa at the base, on the east side of I-5.

Caughlan said the Marine Corps and the Navy essentially defer to the assessment of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that the current storage location — which is behind a 27-foot seawall — is safe.

“I’d rather not deal with a hypothetical,” Caughlan said. “I’m certainly not a decision-maker there. This is a safety, science, engineering-driven process, over which the NRC holds the government’s authority.”

The NRC is in charge of reactor safety and disposal of spent fuel for the nation's nuclear facilities.

There are other leased parcels of land at Camp Pendleton but Tom Palmisano, vice president, decommissioning and chief nuclear officer at SONGS, said using those parcels as potential sites for spent fuel would require acquiring a new NRC license.

“Currently there is no other alternative for us other than to store it (in its present) location,” Palmisano said, adding that the current site “we felt, was the best choice.”

In 2015, the California Coastal Commission made a controversial decision to approve Edison’s plan to store spent fuel at its current location. However, the Coastal Commission’s permit expires in 2035.

Palmisano said if the SONGS waste is still on site in 2035, Edison will go to the Coastal Commission and, when it applies for a permit extension, will have to justify why the current location is appropriate or talk about an alternative site.

“We’re an advocate for getting (the spent fuel) off the San Onofre site, let’s be clear, we agree with that,” Palmisano said. “But whatever (potential new site) you decide is going to be a challenge to get local consent, to get the license and to get the transportation set up.”

About one-third of the waste at SONGS is sitting in what is called “dry cask storage.” The remaining two-thirds are in “wet storage,” where the assemblies are being cooled. Dry storage is considered safer than wet storage.

Starting next month, workers at SONGS will begin the slow process of transferring the fuel assemblies in wet storage to a dry cask storage site that recently wrapped up construction.

The transfer is expected to be completed in 2019.

Like waste at nuclear facilities across the country, the spent fuel at SONGS is stuck on site until the federal government opens a repository to receive the nearly 80,000 metric tons that has piled up over the years.

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©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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