Nucleus of a Dilemma: Reactors Closing as Disposal Sites Wane

Times Staff Writers

The obstacle-strewn odyssey of San Onofre's decommissioned reactor is just one piece of a looming dilemma: what to do with the remains of America's aging nuclear power plants.

That problem will escalate, with more than half of the nation's 103 commercial reactors facing mandatory shutdown in the next three decades, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission data compiled by The Times.

"We are now about to enter the era where large reactors are going to be coming off line," said Daniel Hirsch, director of the nuclear watchdog Committee to Bridge the Gap. "A reactor gives you maybe 50 years of energy, and 500,000 years of waste."

Yet a tangle of competing state and federal laws leaves California and 35 other states no place to ship their most toxic low-level waste after 2008. If the problem isn't solved, operators of decommissioned nuclear plants might have no choice but to keep radioactive waste on site for hundreds of years.

Nuclear plants are licensed for only 40 years for reasons ranging from community concern to the effects of radioactivity on equipment. A one-time 20-year extension is possible, but only after extensive studies and sometimes costly upgrades. Then they must close for good.

Assuming a high-level radioactive waste dump is opened under Yucca Mountain in Nevada for materials such as spent nuclear fuel, there will still be at least 25 million cubic feet of low-level waste left behind -- traces of which will linger for tens of thousands of years.

Challenges to handling the waste include long-term leakage into water and soil, limited disposal sites and continuing fierce public and state opposition to construction of dumps. There are only three low-level radioactive waste dumps nationwide, and only one -- in Barnwell, S.C. -- will take California's most toxic low-level waste. After it stops accepting that waste in five years, there will be no place it can legally go.

"That constitutes a national infrastructure crisis," said Alan Pasternak of the California Radioactive Materials Management Forum, an industry group that plans to push Congress to create federal disposal sites.

Another dilemma is how to move the reactor vessels -- the oversized containers that soak up radioactivity from the atom-splitting equipment they hold. A vivid example of that is the 950-ton radioactive chunk marooned at the San Onofre plant south of San Clemente. The plant is decommissioning one of its three reactors and plans to send it to Barnwell.

Panama Canal officials say the vessel, encased in concrete and steel, is too heavy to move through the canal. Rail officials say it is so large that moving it could cripple operations, although they did not refuse outright. "It moves so slowly that it could really screw up your railroad," said Tom White, spokesman for the American Assn. of Railroads industry group.

And Charleston, S.C., harbor officials say that because of terrorist concerns, they do not want the San Onofre reactor moving through their waterway.

But South Carolina is where it has to go. Although the Barnwell dump has an expected life of 50 years or more, after 2008 it will take waste from only three eastern states, spokeswoman Deborah Ogilvie said. "A lot of people feel we have done our share," she said. "It's someone else's turn."

A 1999 study by the General Accounting Office found states had spent $600 million to develop disposal sites, but none was successful. California Gov. Pete Wilson had pushed for a low-level nuclear waste dump in the Mojave Desert, but it was blocked by the Clinton administration, Gov. Gray Davis, and state legislation.

That leaves California, which has seven commercial reactors, and other states no place to ship their most toxic low-level radioactive waste after Barnwell shuts its doors.

"The states have dropped the ball. What we're banking on is that the federal government has the political will that the states have not demonstrated," Pasternak said.

Indeed, Congress could open up federal disposal space, said James Kennedy, technical assistant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's director of waste management. The federal National Research Council began a 20-month study of the problem in December.

Without such a step, the only alternative may be to leave radioactive waste on site at the nation's nuclear plants.

After a reactor shuts down, it is usually placed in safe storage on site for a few years to allow the most toxic waste to decay somewhat, while plans are made for final disposal. Then it can be entombed on site, which has been discouraged by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or shipped elsewhere. Many activists say the waste should stay where it is. The hazards of transporting it and of creating new radioactive sites would be avoided, they argue.

But others note that communities grudgingly accepted nuclear reactors in their backyards for 40 years, not millenniums. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff proposed rule changes to encourage on-site entombment a few years ago, but put them on hold after receiving differing opinions from state officials and energy companies.

At San Onofre, entombment would be impossible and possibly unsafe. The land is leased from the Marines and must be returned by 2040. In addition, rising ocean waters due to global warming could jeopardize long-term storage at the coastal site.

So far nationwide, two commercial reactors have been shipped elsewhere: one from Massachusetts to Barnwell, the other from Oregon to the Hanford nuclear waste dump in Washington state. Two more are ready to go in Maine and Connecticut, NRC officials said.

Southern California Edison officials insist they are moving forward with the San Onofre reactor. Despite transportation snags, they say it could be on the high seas by November, sailing around the globe if necessary to reach South Carolina. "We don't see these as obstacles. This is a major operation, and with any major operation, there are forks in the road," Edison spokesman Ray Golden said.

Wherever large, decaying parts of reactors end up, there are health and safety concerns..

Opponents note that it is impossible to know who will be living near a nuclear site thousands of years from now, or what water they will need. More immediately, they complain that commission regulations don't demand that disposal sites be lined, a requirement even at municipal dumps.

Legislation sponsored by former Assemblyman Fred Keeley that became effective this year bans shallow, unlined trenches and requires other strict planning if a low-level nuclear waste dump is built in California.

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