Internal reports contradict regulators’ public findings over spent fuel at San Onofre

Questions over the interim storage of nuclear waste at San Onofre have persisted since the plant was closed in 2012.

When a 50-ton cask filled with radioactive waste became wedged 18 feet above the bottom of its concrete silo in August 2018, work crews at the San Onofre nuclear plant were able to lower the container to its intended resting place after nearly an hour.

Majority plant owner Southern California Edison halted plans to transfer millions more pounds of spent nuclear fuel from wet to dry storage while federal regulators investigated what happened and made sure the process was safe.

Federal inspectors found many of the waste-filled canisters had been scraped and scratched as they were lowered into the interim storage facility. Even so, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the waste transfer program to resume in July.


Documents recently obtained by the San Diego Union-Tribune show that an agency field inspector reviewing the August 2018 incident issued internal reports noting that the canisters were designed — and certified — to be lowered into the storage vault without any scratches.

NRC inspector Lee Brookhart wrote that the required final safety analysis report and the certificate of compliance and technical specifications call for no scratches on the caskets.

“The original FSAR (final safety analysis report) statement for no scratches mirrored the CoC/TS (Certificate of Compliance and Technical Specifications) design basis that no scratches would ensure the code adherence,” Brookhart wrote in March.

NRC officials did not respond Friday to questions about those internal reports. An Edison spokesman said the utility is fully compliant with federal regulations and the reloading work has been proceeding safely.

Edison spokesman John Dobken said Friday that the utility is following federal rules.

“There’s another process available for licensees: 72.48,” Dobken said, referring to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations section that allows a licensee to make changes in procedures or design of the casks used to store spent nuclear fuel. “That’s what we used to account for the incidental contact going forward,” he said.

The regulation is here:

Dobken said that the company visually inspected eight of the canisters and found no evidence that the scratches would prevent the containers from safely storing spent nuclear fuel.

The canisters Edison is relying on to store spent fuel are licensed to be used for two decades.

The current plan calls for eventually moving the canisters away from San Diego once a more permanent storage site is agreed upon. But critics of the process worry that the scratches outside so many of the canisters could make them difficult to move.

“If you have scrapes, scratches and gouges, that is a trigger for cracks to start,” said Donna Gilmore, an activist in San Clemente who heads a community group called San Onofre Safety.

Brookhart, the NRC inspector, concluded in March that a formal design change would be required to allow the canisters to remain in service.

Instead of pursuing changes to the approved canister design process, Edison relied on a different safety standard to argue that its existing methods are compliant and safe.

Brookhart did not agree that a different methodology would satisfy the requirements of the canisters’ previous certification.

“I just don’t see how that meets CoC,” the NRC inspector said. “... Essentially the change [in methodology] is adding an alternative to the code to not have to do inspections and repair these new defects.”

Brookhart’s supervisors at the regulatory agency did not embrace the inspector’s conclusions. On July 15, the commission allowed Edison to restart the fuel transfer program and move forward with decommissioning the plant.

“The licensee implemented an oversight program to ensure that contractors conducted decommissioning work activities in accordance with procedural requirements as well as license expectations,” the NRC said in a report to an Edison vice president, Doug Bauder.

“The licensee implemented operational, radiological and housekeeping programs to ensure safe storage of spent fuel,” senior regulators concluded.

San Diego attorney Michael Aguirre, who has filed several lawsuits aimed at stopping the burial of 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste in the beach north of Oceanside, said the internal reports show that the NRC disregarded its own inspector in favor of Southern California Edison.

“These decisions should be based on professional inspectors and not on lobbyists and political players at the NRC,” Aguirre said. “It underscores why the downloading has to stop because it is interfering with the ability to transfer the canisters to a safer location.”

Questions over the interim storage of nuclear waste at San Onofre have persisted since the plant was closed in 2012. At least 8 million people live within 50 miles of the plant, and many of them are scared that the site could present a public health threat.

Under U.S. law, the federal government is responsible for the permanent storage of the San Onofre waste — as well as all of the other spent nuclear fuel in North America. But for decades, federal officials have been unable to agree on a permanent storage facility.

The San Onofre decommissioning plan calls for moving the waste into about 80 heavy concrete canisters by the end of next year so Edison can dismantle the rest of the closed plant and return the property to its owner, the U.S. Navy.

Two years ago, Edison agreed to make “commercially reasonable” efforts to relocate the San Onofre waste to settle a lawsuit Aguirre filed in 2015.

McDonald writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.