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By Charles Lam
Photo by Mike McgillYou might say Orange County's nuclear chickens have come home to roost, except they never left.
Last week, state officials cleared the way for the final approval of a plan to store highly radioactive fuel rods at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The plan, approved by state Coastal Commission staffers, proposes burying the rods next to the reactors in concrete casks for 50 years.
Highly radioactive waste has been stored at San Onofre since 1983 in so-called cooling ponds located next to the reactors—a temporary solution officials say is riskier than burying the waste onsite.
Environmental groups, most notably the Sierra Club, are outraged. They say that SONGS is too close to densely populated San Diego and Orange counties and some of the nicest beaches in Southern California to become a permanent nuclear-waste dump. They point out that San Onofre sits along an active earthquake fault and say that terrorists could easily attack the plant, whose bulging concrete domes loom menacingly over Interstate 5.
But the decision was hardly a surprise. For years, local environmental groups like Orange County's Alliance for Survival have openly predicted that waste generated at SONGS would have to stay there forever. In the face of ever-changing plans announced by the plant's operator, Edison International, such groups have argued that there is simply no safe place to put the nuclear waste.
Long-term solutions are scarce. Like many nuke plants, SONGS has been around for three decades; it's scheduled to close in 2022. Meanwhile, the toxic junk these plants produce is piling up. This explains why, for the past several years, SONGS and other nuclear plants have touted their own dubious panacea: dump the aging fuel rods and other contaminated reactor parts somewhere out in the desert—forever.
The likeliest remote desert dumpsite is no longer so likely: Yucca Mountain, a massive underground bunker in the Nevada desert that is connected to the surface by a half-mile-long, concrete-lined tunnel. But official concerns over long-term safety at Yucca Mountain have stalled the project for the foreseeable future. New research suggests the area is more earthquake-prone than previously thought.
In the meantime, another possible site for radioactive waste at Ward Valley —a remote area near Needles, California —has been dropped from consideration. Research there showed that anything dumped in Ward Valley could eventually leak through fissures in the soil to the Colorado River, the main source of water throughout the Southwest.
Even assuming that a safe location is found, getting the nuclear waste to the proposed dumpsite poses some scary possibilities. If Yucca Mountain ever opens, the U.S. Department of Energy has estimated it would receive 15,000 to 80,000 shipments of waste during the next 15 to 30 years. A good deal of that traffic would flow from California's five nuclear reactors, traveling by train or truck from places like Los Angeles to the Nevada border —and through the infamous Cajon Pass. A string of rail accidents has earned that treacherous stretch a reputation as the most dangerous train route in California.
According to environmentalists, if just one casket containing an irradiated fuel rod is ruptured in a populous urban area, the aftermath would be catastrophic. In a December 1997 interview, anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott told the Weekly that transporting nuclear waste around the country is the worst possible solution to the problem posed by long-term storage.
"Depending on how concentrated the radioactive plume is [from an accident site], people could die from acute radiation exposure," she said. "The people handling the accident would be irradiated. They'd be sacrificial lambs."
Which leads us back to the possibility that the Coastal Commission will give final approval on Nov. 14 to Edison's plans to bury nuclear waste underground at San Onofre. That plan calls for the waste to be wrapped inside two layers of steel and placed inside concrete bunkers underground. The bunkers are just 100 feet away from the Pacific Ocean. Should San Onofre's human neighbors worry?
Hell, no, says Breck Henderson, a SONGS spokesman. "There's a lot of fear among people who really don't understand the nature of the material," he recently told the Los Angeles Times. "They think the drums will rust away, and pretty soon, the water in their tap glows green when it comes out. That's just not the way it is. . . . You'd have to hug it for a year to get the same radiation" as an X-ray, he bragged.
By all accounts, however, the waste already buried at San Onofre will remain radioactive for at least the next 20,000 years. Given the frightening lack of options when it comes to long-term nuclear-waste storage, it's not likely ever to leave the confines of San Onofre's reactor area—unless, for example, a massive earthquake shakes it loose. While that's a truly scary possibility, the scariest part of all may be that simply burying it there is probably the safest thing to do.