Experts give opinions on short- and long-term nuclear storage and transportation

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. File photo
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. File photo

By Andrea Papagianis

Since the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shutdown in June 2013, one question has been at the forefront of discussion: what happens to used, or spent, nuclear fuel.

With the plant’s decades-long decommissioning process started, fuel from its two nuclear reactors was removed. Now, spent fuel sits in wet storage, lowering in temperature for five to seven years, before being placed into dry storage—where it could stay indefinitely.

Tuesday night, the community engagement panel spearheaded by the plant’s majority owner and operator, Southern California Edison, heard from a nuclear energy expert, federal regulator and storage professional about safety regulations, storage options and the future of the nation’s nuclear waste.

The panel includes representatives from across Orange and San Diego counties and was created to give the public input into the ongoing decommissioning process. The public did not have a chance to comment Tuesday as the meeting was focused on experts giving their opinions and panelists asking questions.

“We need to recognize that ultimately the waste and management is a federal responsibility,” said UC Berkeley professor Per Peterson, who studies the safety, security and management of nuclear waste.

“We need to recognize that ultimately the waste and management is a federal responsibility.”-Per Peterson

Peterson served on a federal advisory committee regarding America’s nuclear future. The 15-member commission was tasked with reviewing federal policies on nuclear fuel’s back-end cycle and with recommending a new plan. A final report was submitted to the Secretary of Energy in January 2012.

Recommendations included utilizing a public-based approach to nuclear energy, establishing an organization dedicated solely to the management of waste, starting to consolidate the storage of such waste and continuing education and innovation programs for nuclear energy. The committee also found that the Department of Energy mishandled funds gathered for nuclear waste, Peterson said.

“There are areas where this is a national consensus,” Peterson told the panel. “We have just lost the ability to build off of what we agree on and rather focus on what we disagree on.”

Four U.S. senators, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), introduced a bill last year encompassing the committee’s recommendations that would enable the federal government to fulfill its commitment to managing spent nuclear fuel. The bill was referred to committee in June. According to the government transparency website, the bill has a 10 percent chance of being enacted.

The community panel asked for guidance in finding a solution for storage at the national level.

After hearing from an AREVA Trans Nuclear representative, the manufacturer of dry-storage containers at SONGS, Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates applauded the presenter for his convincing argument over the safety of long-term storage.

But Bates said the positive word did not help the local desire to get spent nuclear fuel moved.

“If you put this in the political arena, where I happen to spend a lot of my time,” Bates said, “I would ask you to think for us why this may be safe, but policy wise we should not be living with.”

The federal government halted funding in 2010 to develop a national repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The decision leaves spent nuclear fuel on site a nuclear plants across the nation. The project is one Peterson called a “failed game of musical chairs,” where the site was settled upon.

In California, spent fuel sits at plant sites including San Onofre, Humbolt Bay and Rancho Seco.

While plans to move fuel to a shared site is dependent on the federal government, presenters urged the panel and community to be proactive in discussing a statewide strategy for transportation options and emergency management if something went awry.

“It might be of some value for this panel to put together, or other folks to put together a California strategy,” said panel chairman David Victor, a UC San Diego professor and international law and regulation expert. “We as a panel focus on parts of the puzzle where we need other people to act.”

Find out about the decommissioning process and upcoming meetings at

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