Dry cask storage at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
Dry canister storage at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Courtesy Southern California Edison

The California Coastal Commission voted 10-0 in a special meeting Thursday to approve an inspection and maintenance program allowing Southern California Edison to store spent nuclear fuel in a storage site at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

The program outlines actions SCE will take to inspect the canisters that contain spent nuclear fuel, as well as how potential issues with the canisters will be remedied.

Robotic devices will be used to inspect the canisters and site conditions will be simulated on a test canister, which will be observed for potential degradation. Two spent fuel storage canisters will be inspected every five years starting in 2024, and the test canister will be inspected every two to three years.

Canister flaws will be repaired by application of a nickel-based metallic spray, and the presence of flaws may result in increased canister inspection frequency and an increase in the number of canisters inspected.

The inspection and maintenance program was also reviewed by the engineering consulting firm LPI, which provided recommendations that included the increase in canister inspections should flaws arise.

Nearly 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel are stored at the plant, which stopped producing electricity in 2012.

Concerns remain over the plant’s proximity to the ocean and the potential for the site to be affected by rising sea levels, tsunami inundation, seismic hazards.

By 2035, the commission may look to relocate the canisters to another site, although no such location is available, according to a commission report.

The report states that though the commission “has consistently voiced its concern that there is no permanent or long-term repository for spent nuclear fuel from SONGS or the other nuclear power plants along the California coast,” no such repository has been identified by the federal government, necessitating storage on-site at SONGS and many other nuclear power plants across the country.

The inspection and maintenance program is designed to ensure the canisters “will remain in a physical condition sufficient to allow both on- site transfer and off-site transport,” should such a site become available.

Charles Langley is executive director of San Diego-based nonprofit Public Watchdogs, which aims to “protect California businesses and residents from the California Public Utilities Commission and other rogue government agencies.”

In a statement, Langley said commissioners “tendered their yes vote between thumb and forefinger because it was truly loathsome.”

Public Watchdogs board member Nina Babiarz added: “By holding their nose and voting yes, the commisioners made themselves victims of their own circumstance. [What] we have now is a deeply flawed inspection and maintenance plan for SONGS. … While the Coastal Commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over much at San Onofre, today they blew the rare chance they did have to get it right.”

Public Watchdogs says it presented compelling evidence showing that if the partially underground canisters become partially flooded by rain, sea-level rise or a tsunami, the cooling system for the radioactive waste would fail.

Updated at 11:08 p.m. July 16, 2020

— City News Service contributed to this report.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.