Ace Hoffman Is Tilting at 'Nofre

The anti-nuke activist has spent years fighting the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Now, the impossible is on his horizon: its permanent shutdown

Spent fuel rods are removed from reactors and placed in crowded (with other rods), 35-foot deep pools of water and allowed to cool down for five to 10 years before being moved into "dry cask" storage. These casks—SONGS hosts about four dozen—are 20 feet tall, 10 feet wide and weigh 100 tons, 15 tons of which is used reactor core assemblies.

Then the casks . . . sit, biding their smoldering time, of which they have plenty. SONGS has accumulated 2,000 tons to 4,000 tons of the vile stuff, and if it ever catches fire, it can explode and shoot potentially fatal debris into our air and water. SCE's take?

"The NRC has determined this storage technology is safe for at least 100 years. The best location for a central, U.S. nuclear-waste depository is a matter of continuing political debate. But there is settled science supporting the long-term safety of deep, geologic disposal."

The old man and the sea
Brendan Klein
The old man and the sea
Ace Hoffman at rest
Brendan Klein
Ace Hoffman at rest

Note how SCE has made SONGS' spent fuel a 2113 problem. And "settled" by whom? We've only been burying this junk since 1942, when the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place. Moreover, no permanent storage site exists for spent nuclear fuel. The feds reneged on promises to haul it away. And the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in August 2012 that declared, "Spent nuclear fuel . . . is one of the most hazardous substances created by humans."

The U.S. can't dispose of the nearly 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel currently stored in 33 states from 104 reactors at 64 plants. It was supposed to go to a repository located deep under Nevada's Yucca Mountain ($10 billion down that hole to date), but Nevadans refuse to risk turning their state into a radioactive, nuclear cauldron. The GAO found that new facilities would take up to 40 years before they could accept spent fuel. Meanwhile, spent fuel stored onsite at commercial nuclear plants increases by about 2,000 metric tons annually.

For something with such a monumentally negative impact, uranium-pellet-filled fuel rods don't deliver much value—each produces energy for only six years, and according to SCE, nuclear plants use only 5 percent of the fuel's energy. It's not low-cost, clean energy—but it is wildly inefficient.

* * *

I speed through the winding emptiness of the 200-square-mile Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, which owns the tract of land SONGS occupies. Oh, those jarheads . . .

Camp Pendleton emerged in 1942 when the U.S. government—reeling in panic from Pearl Harbor—essentially confiscated 122,798 acres of Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores from its owners and created the country's largest Marine Corps base. In May 1964, the Department of the Navy granted SCE a 60-year easement for use of the site to build and operate SONGS.

Construction of Units 2 and 3 spanned a decade, going beyond the budget by billions of dollars because of earthquake-related design revisions and regulatory delays. The final price at startup for the two reactors totaled $4.5 billion, according to the California Council on Science and Technology. The pricey corpses of both units' cores will fester onsite forever. After operating Unit 1 for 24 years, SCE decommissioned and dismantled it in 1992 because it didn't want to spend $125 million in required modifications. The old reactor remains onsite, cocooned in concrete and still as radioactive as hell.

When I phoned the Marines to ask about protecting the base's daytime population of 70,000, I was told to call SCE. Later, I did find a brochure on the base website explaining evacuation procedures should SONGS experience an emergency.

I zip through the unmanned California Highway Patrol-U.S. Border Patrol San Onofre traffic checkpoint, come up over a rise, and there it is: SONGS. It looms on my left, next to the Pacific Ocean, which backdrops the plant's familiar, 160-foot, twin, hemispherical, concrete containment towers. (Yeah, I know: They look like Hollywood bolt-on breast implants, but I'm not playin'.) The place is squat, gray and homely in a haute gauche, bleak-noir, industro-power-plant style, 45 years ancient and well past its "close by" date. In 2000, Edison wrangled license extensions to 2020. The containment structures for both units are made of 4.5-foot-thick reinforced concrete. Inside each structure is an 8-inch-thick steel reactor vessel that houses the reactor.

The incongruity of seeing this woeful monstrosity on that magnificent shore always stuns. An aged, "embrittled," crumbling relic of the U.S. government's 1950s and 1960s nuclear-power-plant-building mania, SONGS hunkers forlorn and ugly in a seismic fault zone near San Clemente's south end on 84 acres of beautiful beachfront . . . now irredeemably lost.

'Nofre's a defiled dragon's lair of nuclear detritus—the flow of the global-nuclear-waste stream dead-ended here, never to go away. But now it's lit up to make the domes, outbuildings, poles, pipes, wires, cyclone fence, brick security wall, et al., look bright and beguiling at dusk. Here's a house that knows how to pay a light bill.

Increasingly, though, there are fewer and fewer folks home, as the place empties out. In August 2012, SCE cut 730 employees, taking the plant workforce down to 1,500—job-loss hits to the local economy that will only continue.

Along with the domes, I can see turbines, outflow/intake pipes, a too-low sea wall, control-room areas, a switchyard, an emergency diesel generator room (all bunched up), water-storage tanks for the emergency cooling systems and, the BIG trouble here, spent-fuel pool areas and dry-storage casks. Trestles surfers and San Onofre State Beach campers see this gruesome sight every day, with little comprehension of its magnitude as an economic, ecological disaster.

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