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By Shawn Raymundo
A nonprofit’s petition challenging the 2019 coastal development permit (CDP) authorizing the dismantlement of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) was tentatively denied by a Los Angeles County judge on Wednesday, June 16.
The lawsuit filed by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation alleged that the California Coastal Commission had violated its own objectives and standards under the Coastal Act when it approved the CDP for Southern California Edison to deconstruct the power plant.
Judge Mitchell Beckloff, in his tentative ruling, found that the nonprofit had failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the CCC violated its statutory requirements or that the agency’s findings related to the dismantlement of the plant were inconsistent with regulations.
“The Coastal Commission did not fail to proceed as required by law,” the tentative ruling stated before adding that the agency’s findings on whether the demolition of the plant’s spent fuel pools actually posed a risk to life and property were “supported by substantial evidence.”
In an emailed statement from the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, the nonprofit said, “This isn’t over,” noting that the court had heard its arguments on June 16 and has within 90 days to issue an official ruling.
“We are fully supportive of plant decommissioning,” the Foundation also said. “We want to make sure that it is done in a way that is most protective of coastal resources and the public. The California Coastal Commission has not given us those assurances.”
The coastal development permit that commissioners unanimously approved in October 2019 allows the utility company to deconstruct the plant’s above-grade structures—a roughly 8- to 10-year process that includes the dismantlement of the twin containment domes and the spent fuel pools, as well as removal of hazardous materials from the site.
“Southern California Edison has consistently maintained that the California Coastal Commission appropriately reached its unanimous decision granting the coastal development permit after rigorous analysis and review,” SCE spokesperson John Dobken said on June 17. “We look forward to the court’s final ruling on this matter.”
Dismantlement of much of the structures, including the containment domes, got underway in earnest last year, while Edison finished transferring its last bit of nuclear waste from the fuel pools into canisters, downloading them into the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, or ISFSI.
The Foundation, in its lawsuit, argued that the Commission’s approval wasn’t supported by evidence, and believes the deconstruction of the plant will have an impact on coastal resources such as San Onofre State Beach, the campground, Camp Pendleton and the terrestrial ecology.
“The project maximizes risks to life and property and threatens geologic stability along the bluffs,” the lawsuit stated, adding: “The Commission has also failed to address or completely address seismic and tsunami risks.”
As part of its argument, the Foundation pointed to two sections of the Coastal Act regarding the locations of new developments and the requirement that such projects minimize impacts on “life and property in areas of high geologic, flood, and fire hazard.”
At issue is whether the state agency was required to consider the individual and cumulative impacts that the new development—the dismantlement of the spent fuel pools—would have on coastal resources prior to approving the 2019 CDP.
“To the extent the Coastal Commission did not consider such impacts and make required findings, Petitioner argues the Coastal Commission abused its discretion because it failed to proceed as required by law,” the tentative ruling summarized.
It went on to note that the Coastal Commission did not make specific findings concerning the dismantlement’s individual and cumulative impacts on coastal resources, and did not err “because it was not statutorily required to consider such impacts.”
Citing the Coastal Act’s language, the tentative ruling stated that the Commission is required to consider those impacts “only where new development will not be located at or near existing development.”
“That the Project is a new development, however, does not mandate consideration of individual and cumulative impacts, because the new development is located in ‘existing developed areas able to accommodate it,’ ” the judge said in the tentative ruling.
“The new development—including the dismantling of the spent fuel pools—will occur where there is existing development,” the court continued.
As to whether the CCC considered the geologic, flood, and fire hazards of the area, the court pointed to the agency’s staff report for the October 2019 Commission meeting that had imposed a series of special conditions on SoCal Edison.
However, the Foundation, the tentative ruling noted, believes the Commission’s analysis to be flawed because it relied on an environmental impact review from the California State Lands Commission.
The Foundation argued that the impact report’s focus on the potential hazards associated with the dry storage of spent fuel “requires an analysis other than whether the Project proposed minimizes the risk to life and property” and should include a “more focused analysis.”
While the court agreed with the Foundation that the impact report didn’t include an “analysis or reach conclusions required under the Coastal Act,” the Commission isn’t precluded from relying on the impact report’s findings.
The court went on to note that the environmental report did address the impacts related to dismantling spent fuel pools, finding that the use of dry storage has been around for more than 30 years in the U.S., “and there has never been a need to replace any major component of the dry storage systems.”
Furthermore, the court added that the Commission also relied on findings from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regarding spent fuel pools, specifically that they “are not necessary to ensure safe on-site spent fuel storage and eventual off-site transport.”
Within the next 90 days, the Los Angeles County Superior Court is expected to issue a final ruling.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.