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Edison agrees to negotiate new home for San Onofre plant’s nuclear waste

Plant owner Southern California Edison has agreed to work with environmentalists to find another home for the radioactive material.

Owners of the failed San Onofre nuclear plant agreed Friday to begin negotiations aimed at relocating tons of radioactive waste from the San Diego County coastline.

The announcement came in the form of a brief filed in San Diego County Superior Court, where a showdown hearing was looming next week between majority plant owner Southern California Edison and environmentalists who want the spent fuel shipped off-site.

The change of heart is significant for Edison, which has long said that storing 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste on the grounds for decades to come is a safe and reasonable option.

Edison and San Diego attorney Michael Aguirre, who filed the lawsuit that led to the settlement negotiations, declined to comment beyond a single-page joint news release.

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Advocacy groups opposed to the burial plan were thrilled with the announcement.

“That’s huge,” said Charles Langley of Public Watchdogs when told about the deal. “The fact that they are willing to consider moving it is an amazing situation.”

The mutual notice filed in court Friday requests that the judge postpone next week’s scheduled hearing at least until July to provide lawyers from both sides of the dispute time to work out a settlement.

In the joint statement, Edison said it is seeking a solution for storing the waste that is acceptable to everyone.

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“We believe the parties in the case and many community leaders share a common goal to transfer San Onofre’s used nuclear fuel off-site as soon as reasonably possible,” Edison executive Tom Palmisano said. “We are hopeful that settlement discussions will permit the parties to reach a mutually agreeable solution.”

Aguirre, who has argued for years that burying millions of pounds of spent radioactive waste along the coastline made no sense, made nearly the same point in the statement released Friday.

“People of good will must come together and work to find a solution that is in the best interests of the people of the state of California,” he said.

The San Diego nonprofit Citizens Oversight sued Edison and the California Coastal Commission in 2015 after regulators approved development of a storage facility within 100 feet of the shoreline.

Attorneys for the state and utility sought to get the case dismissed as without merit, which Judge Judith F. Hayes declined to do. The hearing next week was scheduled to determine whether the court should order the commission to reverse its permit approval.

There was no word Friday on where the spent fuel may end up.

Possible locations include Palo Verde in Arizona, where Edison is part-owner of another nuclear plant; Nevada, where federal regulators have long planned a national repository; or one of a handful of proposed private dumps.

Edison is in the process of moving the San Onofre waste from climate-controlled pools to so-called dry cask storage — steel-lined canisters scheduled to be buried near the shuttered twin reactors north of Oceanside.

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The company plans to complete the transfer by 2019 and return the leased property to the federal government as soon as possible.

The Citizens Oversight lawsuit sought an injunction against the Coastal Commission permit, arguing that the location was unsafe because more than 8 million people live within 50 miles of the site.

The plaintiffs also complained that the canisters are subject to leaks, saltwater intrusion, tsunamis and earthquakes.

The storage devices Edison is planning to use have been certified by federal regulators for 20 years of use. Critics of the dry-cask plan note that radioactive waste remains dangerous for thousands of years.

Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz said state officials have yet to be involved in the negotiations that led to the announcement Friday.

“We are not part of the talks at this very early stage,” Schwartz said. “However, if discussions involve changing the permit such as moving the waste to another site, then the commission would of course join the negotiations.”

Gary Headrick of San Clemente Green, an advocacy group opposed to storing the waste at San Onofre, was grateful that Edison was willing to discuss an alternative to the current plan but he was also cautious.

“We appreciate their good intentions but we will be in ‘trust but verify’ mode as things proceed,” Headrick said. “San Clemente Green has been promoting the idea of an independent advisory panel of nuclear experts to be involved in the decision-making process for some time now. This could be a very big step in that direction.”

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The pending settlement talks mark the second significant legal victory by the Aguirre & Severson law firm in recent weeks. Edison agreed last month to a mediation plan to resolve a separate lawsuit over the $4.7 billion in costs related to the premature San Onofre closure in 2012.

The California Public Utilities Commission approved a deal that assigns $3.3 billion of those expenses to ratepayers, but Aguirre filed a federal lawsuit alleging that agreement was unfair.

After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear that case, Edison agreed to hire the same mediator who facilitated the $765-million deal between National Football League owners and players over brain injuries due to on-field collisions.

The long-term storage of radioactive waste has vexed government officials, utility executives and environmental groups since the 1960s, when nuclear power became a widely used source of electricity.

For decades, plant operators such as those at San Onofre have stored the spent fuel rods in cooling pools near the reactors under the expectation that the federal government would at some point approve a permanent national repository.

Congress never mustered the political will to develop such a facility, although a Trump administration budget released this year revived the long-delayed Yucca Mountain project in Nevada by including $120 million in fresh funding.

The 2,200-megawatt San Onofre plant was closed in January 2012 after a small amount of radiation leaked from newly installed replacement steam generators. The $680-million upgrade was supposed to add 40 years to the life of the facility.

Edison made the decision to shutter San Onofre for good in June 2013 and proceed with decommissioning so the property could be returned to the U.S. Navy.

jeff.mcdonald@sduniontribune.com


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