Chernobyl in San Onofre?

Debate continues over canister thickness

Satellite view of San Onofre from Google Earth
  • Satellite view of San Onofre from Google Earth

In March of this year, Southern California Edison, the major owner of the shuttered San Onofre nuclear plant, revealed that a shipment of canisters in which the company is burying nuclear waste near the ocean was defective. That same month, Tom Palmisano, Edison’s chief nuclear officer, admitted at a public meeting that while the company had sent back the shipment, “We have four canisters loaded [thus, filled with radioactive spent fuel] with this design where we have found a broken pin.” But the company is taking precautions to provide safety, he quickly claimed.

Donna Gilmore (right) believes canisters are too thin for nuclear waste.

Donna Gilmore (right) believes canisters are too thin for nuclear waste.

2014 NRC wasteconf

“Because we cannot inspect the cans — a way to do this has not been invented — we don’t know if the four cans that have been buried in their concrete silos have broken [pins],” says Charles Langley, executive director of Public Watchdogs, a group protesting Edison’s corner cutting. He sent me the video of Palmisano making the statement, and there is no doubt he admitted the burial.

Tom Palmisano, Edison's chief nuclear officer

Tom Palmisano, Edison's chief nuclear officer

Tom Palmisano's admission on video

Tom Palmisano, Edison's chief nuclear officer

Tom Palmisano, Edison's chief nuclear officer

Knowing Edison’s long reputation for falsification, people within 50 miles of the facility in North County near Orange County are understandably fearful. They believe the idea of burying radioactive spent nuclear fuel near the ocean is insane — and highly dangerous for current and future generations. For one thing, Edison’s inability to unload buried canisters is against Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules, notes Donna Gilmore of sanonofresafety.org, who also says the canisters are far too thin and will eventually leak radioactive material.

Unit 1, torn down to make room for current nuclear dump

Unit 1, torn down to make room for current nuclear dump

However, there is one institution that doesn’t seem to give a damn. It’s Edison. I combed through its most recent 10-Q quarterly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. In a section listing risks of the San Onofre decommissioning, such as lawsuits and adverse regulatory decisions, there is no specific report on those thin canisters, the fact that some radioactive material is stored in potentially defective canisters, and the danger of burying highly dangerous spent nuclear fuel near the ocean. Apparently, the company doesn’t consider these material risks.

I asked Edison why it doesn’t seem to consider the ghastly potential at San Onofre as a material risk. I studied Wall Street analyst reports. It’s clear the analysts don’t consider these grim possibilities a risk to Edison stock. Indeed, a Morningstar analyst writes, “Edison has removed virtually all of its past overhangs [financial liabilities], such as its decision to close the San Onofre nuclear plant in 2013.” Now, I have been reading analysts’ reports for 54 years, and I know that in almost all cases the Wall Street folks get their information from the companies they report on.

So I asked Edison: Are you telling analysts that your San Onofre costs are pretty much over? And why don’t you list the thin canister dangers, as well as the decision to bury thin cans near the ocean, in your report to the securities commission?

Says the company, “Edison cannot speak for Wall Street or individual analysts.” Hmmm. That is a nonanswer. As to why the company does not list the dangerous thin canisters near the ocean as a risk factor, the company says, “Stainless steel canisters to store used nuclear fuel have been safely used in the [United States] for more than three decades.”

Nina Babiarz, cofounder of Public Watchdogs, says this sounds like Edison’s longstanding claim that there is a “low likelihood of any credible accident that could result in radiological conditions.” Those words “low likelihood” are not comforting.

Gilmore cites a statement by the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board that spent nuclear fuel must be “retrievable, maintained, and monitored.” Edison’s thin-canister plan doesn’t meet those criteria. “Thin-wall canisters are vulnerable to short-term cracking and leaking, cannot be inspected inside or out, and cannot be maintained and monitored to prevent radioactive leaks,” she says on her website, sanonofresafety.org. The thin canisters in use now are only ½ to ⅝ inches thick. Gilmore prefers thick casks 10 to 19.75 inches thick, preferably stored in reinforced buildings, such as in Japan and Germany.

“The [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] solutions for adequate inspection and repair do not exist for canisters loaded with fuel,” she says on the website. Canisters can’t be unloaded back into the pool, although commission licenses require that they can be. In case of leakage, “The [commission] requires the ability to reverse the process, but there is no way to do it,” she says in an interview.

“In each canister is a Chernobyl disaster,” she says. And there are 8.5 million people within 50 miles of San Onofre, notes Langley. He and Gilmore agree that a San Onofre disaster could not only cause massive human death and maiming but cripple the California and United States economies.

The thick-wall casks are proven safe, says Gilmore. “Fukushima thick-wall casks survived the 2011 earthquake and tsunami,” she points out. But in the United States, the unholy alliance among the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, state regulatory commissions, and utilities permits usage of the unsafe thin canisters. “I was shocked to see the low standard of the nuke industry,” she says. “The only way they get away with it is being good at propaganda.”

San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre, who with his partner Maria Severson has kept the battle against the Edison regulators’ duplicity in the public eye, disagrees with Gilmore and Langley. “Safer canisters are not the solution. Moving them is the solution,” says Aguirre, who has no problem with thin canisters. “I want the canisters moved as far away from San Diego County as we can. There is no reason they can’t be transported. They are transported around Europe all the time.” He slams the public advocacy groups who abhor thin canisters near the ocean. “They use fear and ignorance to exploit people.” Their real mission is “fund-raising, fund-raising, fund-raising,” he complains.

Gilmore concedes that thick canisters in reinforced buildings couldn’t be located at San Onofre. There isn’t room. “There is no reason to take fuel across the U.S. and send it all to Texas, New Mexico, or Nevada,” she says. “Why should the Southwest get over 10,000 Chernobyl cans from the rest of the country?” she asks. In common with many others, she prefers a high spot at Camp Pendleton.

Meanwhile, more scary woes have come out. This month, a San Onofre worker, admitting his job might be in jeopardy, related at a public meeting how a canister packed with more than 30 spent fuel assemblies plunged almost 18 feet into a steel-lined concrete silo. He spoke out because his daughter lived nearby. How long can North County and Orange County residents stand living with such suspense?

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While a "radiological incident" is yet to happen, the truth meltdown is well underway.

You're absolutely correct that Edison's SEC filings must include "Risk Factors" in "a discussion of the most significant factors that make the offering speculative or risky. This discussion must be concise and organized logically. Do not present risks that could apply to any issuer or any offering. Explain how the risk affects the issuer or the securities being offered."

Think it's fair to say the liability of maintaining huge amounts of already questionably stored Armageddon quick mix in perpetuity isn't something "that could apply to any issuer," even as a "low likelihood."

Edison, Wall Street, the regulators, and most everyone involved in this are the three monkeys: hearing and seeing and saying no evil, thinking that will be enough to keep evil from happening...

Cassander: With Edison, it's just a simple matter of complete dishonesty. It almost always is with that company. Best, Don Bauder

I go far enough back to remember when SONGS was the going to provide cheap energy for generations to come. How did that work out? It worked out just like everything else that the corrupt for profit utility companies come up with. The ratepayer gets screwed.

AlexClarke: San Onofre certainly didn't provide cheap energy. It did provide Edison a chance to screw the ratepayers. Best, Don Bauder

Yes it is true that Mike Aguirre, who with his partner Maria Severson, have gotten ratepayers a negotiated "better" partial refund. But it is also true that this settlement was done without the grass roots people being directly involved in the "negotiated settlement discussions"! That said, I and many others feel that SCE (and its 20% minor partner) SDG&E) should have paid ratepayers a much higher refund since they, the reactor operators, were directly responsible for both the design flaws of the 4 new replacement steam generators and the operator errors that caused them to fail!

  • The CPUC should require SCE pay for a multi-billion dollar bond against any types of radioactive damage which would insure that ratepayers and or US tax payers don't get stuck paying for any problems that occur now or sometime in the future!

  • Thin walled canisters are unacceptable when ratepayers are footing the bill for them since stronger canisters are not that much more expensive. Example: If you were going on a very long multi-year road trip, how many of you would buy cheap tires when for a few more dollars you could get top rated tires with a much longer mileage warranty? Said another way, SCE is trying to save money instead of looking out for its ratepayers!

  • Remember that if there are any future radioactive leakage issues at San Onofre, SDC will make a profit dealing with them so it is not to their advantage to push for state of the art longer lasting containers. TEPCO the operators of the reactors at Fukushima that suffered a triple meltdown on 03/11/11 are still profiting from "cleanup" and will continue to do so for the rest of our lives and probably our children lives...

CaptD: I agree that ratepayers should have gotten much more money back. Yes, Edison should put up a multi-billion dollar bond against a radiation leak. Don't expect the CPUC to require it to do so.

Yes, thin-walled canisters are unacceptable. In time, they will leak. Thick-walled canisters stored in protected buildings are the only acceptable option.

You make a good point. If there are future leaks, Edison will make money. That is because every time a utility's management screws up, or simply makes a capital investment, the CPUC permits the company's earnings to rise. I have written columns on that. Best, Don Bauder

Dennis Allen: The San Onofre rape of the ratepayers was caused, first, by managerial stupidity, and second by underhanded collusion between Edison and the CPUC. Best, Don Bauder

Mike Murphy: Nobody will be able to inspect the place, even after the inevitable leakage. Best, Don Bauder

Murphyjunk: Oh dear. You can't mean me, can you? I'm too old and too chicken. Best, Don Bauder

put the idea in one of your colleagues ears

Shimizu Randall: It may be impossible to encase the ones already buried in larger canisters. But any further burials should be in the large canisters inside a safe building. Best, Don Bauder

Donna Gilmore: So thick casks can be stored at the San Onofre site, although that is not preferable. But could those casks be stored in buildings at the San Onofre site? Best, Don Bauder

Rochelle Baker: Thanks for getting the word out. Best, Don Bauder

Donna Gilmore: Aguirre has a stake in seeing the nuclear waste moved out of state, particularly to Arizona. I don't like to see him denigrating the groups fighting the Edison/CPUC/NRC non-solution. Those local groups may not offer a solution that is the same as Aguirre's, but they are doing the right thing. Best, Don Bauder

don bauder The nuclear waste from San Onofre will NEVER be moved to Arizona. APS operates Palo Verde NGS and their officials said last year they will not agree to take fuel: "We are not licensed to store used fuel from any other facility, and there is no initiative that makes sense to start the licensing process.”

danfogel: I believe you are right on that. My sources have consistently said that the spent fuel from San Onofre will never wind up in Arizona. Best, Don Bauder

don bauder I don't know who your sources are, nor do I really care. My source is APS itself. You know, the entity that would be the ones that would be required to seek approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and, most likely, foot the bill for the cost of expanding the storage facilities. From the horses mouth, as the saying goes. Maybe it's just me, but I would consider them to be the most reliable source.

danfogel: Journalists never reveal their sources. My sources told me this many months ago. That may or may not have preceded the APS declaration. Best, Don Bauder

The immediate solution is to stop burying them just above high tide line and move them across I5 to a site that is much higher yet still within San Onofre/Camp Pendleton.

Moving them to a "Government Long Term" site is not going to happen for a long time if at all so waiting until that option is viable is the same as doing nothing about storing all the thin walled containers near the high water line at San Onofre.

If Edison is so sure that the current plan is bulletproof then by all means post a multi-billion dollar bond against a radiation leak. Otherwise Edison is setting San Onofre up for failure in order to profit from any future radioactive problems!

CaptD: I agree: although it is not a perfect site, the best place now for the spent fuel from San Onofre is at a high location across Route 5. Most of my sources say that. Best, Don Bauder

Excellent investigative reporting by you Don, thank you once again. We sure don't see this news in most places. I guess it's time to re-watch The China Syndrome. I did see this article this morning on my phone app: link text

Thank you again Don!

Darren: Yes, that article was sent to me this morning. The article actually challenges the last paragraph of my story. It says -- and a reader corroborates -- that a load of spent fuel almost plunged 18 feet. I reported that it had done so. I have gone back to my source but haven't heard back. Best, Don Bauder

Susan Corbett: Several of my sources reluctantly say the best location for the waste would be a high spot at Pendleton. Best, Don Bauder

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