By John Dobken
In a recent conversation I had, the discussion turned to the reason some people disseminate misleading or outright false information about spent nuclear fuel and radiation. One group had just released a video that claimed spent nuclear fuel in California puts “you, your family, and everything else that lives in California at risk.” It’s a statement that has no scientific basis. So why do they say it?
The public deserves the facts about spent nuclear fuel and its storage. The current path to a long-term storage solution essentially began with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Since then, there has been a series of fits and starts including more legislation; funding the Yucca Mountain repository; political battles; nuclear plant sites building their own temporary storage systems; de-funding Yucca Mountain; introducing consolidated interim storage plans; and a myriad of other developments.
Through all of that activity over nearly 40 years, plus countless scientific and engineering studies by national labs, legislative hearings and fact-finding efforts, as well as private research, we have a pretty good idea of what spent nuclear fuel is capable of, and what it isn’t capable of. Yet, there are still a few here in Southern California who believe fear should be the primary motivator for action. They keep repeating “8 million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre,” with no basis around what 50 miles signifies. What benefit derives from portraying spent nuclear fuel as a “ticking time bomb” or “another Chernobyl” when it clearly isn’t? Better policy? Likely not.
Jerry Stephenson, SCE dry fuel storage engineering manager, explains how the storage area radiation monitors work. Only one other nuclear plant in the country has a similar system. (Credit: SCE)
We take safety extremely seriously in the nuclear industry, including the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel. We welcome like-minded people advocating for robust safety measures that are based in science and sound engineering practices. With input from the public, Southern California Edison installed radiation monitors around the dry fuel storage systems at San Onofre, which goes above and beyond Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements. That data is available from the California Department of Public Health.
But Sarah Mosko’s latest piece isn’t grounded in any science or engineering principles.
A ceramic nuclear fuel pellet. The pellets are contained within zirconium alloy rods and sealed inside spent fuel storage canisters. (Credit: NEI)
The spent nuclear fuel canisters in use at San Onofre have a service life of 100 years or more. To Mosko, this is a “very short term.” One hundred years ago, just 35 percent of U.S. households had electricity. Over the next 100 years, the fuel will become less radioactive, continue cooling, and remain safely confined from people and the environment. This time frame serves the development of a repository, which is, again, where the focus should be.
Metallic Overlay: Technicians watch as a robot applies a nickel coating to the test canister at San Onofre during a field demonstration of SCE’s chosen repair method for canister degradation. (Credit: SCE)
Mosko contradicts herself regarding canister inspection and repair. One of her “facts” is that there is no technology to inspect for cracks. And the next “fact” is that we have a repair method for canister cracks. It would be illogical to develop one application without the other. The fact is we can find them (using a General Electric borescope that can detect surface defects down to .001 inches) and repair them, and demonstrated this to the California Coastal Commission and its independent engineering experts. As for the claim the metallic overlay process is “unproven,” it’s been used in several industries, including oil and gas, shipping, transportation, automotive and the military.
Regarding maintaining the spent fuel pools, the NRC has expressly considered such a requirement and has rejected it. It does not require decommissioned plant sites to maintain a spent fuel pool, because it is not necessary to ensure public health and safety. Also, doing so would seriously impede the effort to restore the site for future other uses. Taking a canister back to the spent fuel pool for unloading is not the optimal way to handle a degraded canister. Contrary to Mosko’s claim, SCE’s preferred method for dealing with a degraded canister is the repair method, mentioned above. This method is detailed in the Inspection and Maintenance Program the Coastal Commission approved in July.
To mislead readers about San Onofre’s safety record, Mosko borrows a chart that’s eight years old. The latest numbers are easily available from the NRC website. From 2016 through August of this year, San Onofre had six allegations reported to the NRC by on-site sources. Two were substantiated, and one had a regulatory response. This is an important aspect of overall nuclear safety. Employees must feel comfortable going to the NRC at any time. Embracing programs like this is one reason nuclear energy is the safest form of energy generation in the world, and SCE certainly does embrace it.
Mosko is simply wrong about the dry storage system choices other countries are making to store their spent nuclear fuel. Since 2014, Brazil, Mexico, Slovenia, South Africa, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom have selected welded-lid canisters such as those used at San Onofre. In the U.S., these nuclear plant sites have chosen welded-lid canisters since 2014: Beaver Valley, Callaway, Clinton, Crystal River, Pilgrim, South Texas Project, V.C. Summer, and Watts Bar.
The mention of the Swiss facility is curious. The Swiss facility is an interim storage location for all of Switzerland, so it’s not surprising that it has a hot cell that can be used to repackage fuel. One of the reasons the Swiss need a hot cell is to replace the seals on their bolted lid casks, the kind Mosko advocates for. Welded-lid canisters are leak-tested and don’t use seals, or O-rings. In other words, they are designed not to be opened. Ever. The Swiss, once they have a permanent geologic repository, will have to repackage all of that fuel, at additional risk and cost, using the hot cell. In this country, we are working toward direct disposal of existing canisters, such as those used at San Onofre. Repackaging, if it were to occur, would take place at a centralized Department of Energy facility, not at San Onofre.
The bottom line to all of this is that the federal government still has the responsibility to pick up the fuel from San Onofre, and other nuclear plant sites, and relocate it to a geologic repository. Consistent with this, the nuclear energy industry, following DOE guidance in the 1990s, began storing its spent fuel in welded-lid canisters that are transportable. More than 80 percent of the spent fuel at San Onofre is eligible for transport now, and the rest by 2030. It doesn’t have to be re-packaged. SCE doesn’t need to build a “hot cell.” We don’t need “thick-wall casks.” We need the federal government to act. And we need fact-based discussions about spent nuclear fuel storage.
John Dobken is the public information officer for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS.