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Hearing set for lawsuit aimed at stopping dismantlement of San Onofre nuclear plant

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
Dismantlement efforts at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station began in early 2020 and are expected to take about eight years to complete.
(Southern California Edison)

A June 16 court date has been set to hear a lawsuit filed by an advocacy group against the California Coastal Commission, seeking to stop dismantlement work at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff will consider the petition by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation that argues the commission should not have granted a permit to Southern California Edison, the majority owner of the plant, to take down buildings and other infrastructure at the now-closed generating station, known as SONGS.

“The public interest is at risk, based on [the commission’s] decision,” said Chelsi Sparti, associate director of the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, based in Del Mar. “The waste is located right next to the ocean, [and] the economy, transportation, the environmental and natural resources that we have are at risk from the long-term storage of stranded radioactive waste.”

A spokeswoman for the Coastal Commission said it does not comment on pending litigation, but in a joint response it filed with Edison to the court last month, the Coastal Commission said the lawsuit’s arguments “run contrary to a wealth of evidence supporting the commission’s decision to approve the permit for the decommissioning project.”

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In October 2019, the commission on a 9-0 vote approved a permit for Edison to begin demolition work at the plant, which has not produced electricity since 2012. Dismantlement began in early 2020 and is expected to take about eight years to complete.

Before granting the permit, the commission required Edison to agree to a number of provisions, including establishing an enhanced inspection and maintenance program for the 123 stainless steel canisters filled with nuclear waste that sit in a pair of dry storage facilities at the north end of the plant.

The permit lasts 20 years and includes a condition that allows the commission by 2035 to revisit whether the dry storage site should be moved to another location in case of rising sea levels, earthquake risk, canister damage or other possible scenarios.

One of the major contentions in the lawsuit deals with what to do with a pair of wet storage pools at SONGS. Before going into canisters, the highly radioactive fuel rods were placed into pools 40 feet deep in order to cool.

Storage pool
A wet storage pool cools radioactive fuel rods at Unit 2 of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
(Southern California Edison )

Edison wants to demolish the pools, saying they are no longer needed since all the fuel assemblies of waste have been transferred to dry storage facilities. But the Samuel Lawrence Foundation and other groups critical of Edison say the pools need to stay in case anything goes wrong with the canisters.

After the foundation sought a temporary restraining order, the group and Edison officials last week signed an agreement that will keep the utility from doing any work on the storage pools for 90 days or until the judge issues his ruling in the case, whichever comes first.

“The lawsuit will protect the only remaining facility on-site that can serve as a safe place to repair and replace the radioactive waste storage canisters,” Sparti said.

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Should a problem ever occur, Edison said, the inspection and maintenance program includes a repair method using robots that can deliver a metallic coating that bonds to the canisters.

“The facts clearly show that the commission was thorough in its analysis, thoughtful in its review and correct in its decision to approve the coastal development permit to safely dismantle SONGS,” Edison spokesman John Dobken said.

Some 3.55 million pounds of used-up nuclear fuel, or waste, remain at SONGS because the federal government has not opened a facility to deposit all the waste that has accumulated at commercial nuclear power plants across the country. About 80,000 metric tons has piled up at 121 sites in 35 states.

When approving Edison’s updated inspection and maintenance program last year, members of the Coastal Commission expressed their frustration with Washington. “This type of material has no business being in the coastal zone of California,” said commission Chairman Steve Padilla. “It is a no-win, I think, for all of us but I think under the circumstances, [voting yes is] the right step.”

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According to Edison’s plans, all that will remain at SONGS when dismantlement is completed will be two dry storage facilities; a security building with personnel to look over the waste; a seawall 28 feet high, as measured at average low tide at San Onofre Beach; a walkway connecting two beaches north and south of the plant; and a switchyard with power lines.

Nikolewski writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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