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San Onofre shutdown: Community raises nuclear waste storage, energy cost concerns at first public meeting

Updated Wednesday 8:53 a.m.: About 300 people turned out for the first Southern California Edison Community Engagement Panel meeting Tuesday evening in San Clemente.

The all-volunteer panel is made up of 18 people, including elected officials, business, labor, academics and environmental activists from San Diego and Orange counties. It has no regulatory authority but was created to give the public input along the way as the nuclear plant goes through decommissioning — the permanent shutdown and storage of nuclear waste at the San Onofre nuclear plant, which lies along the Pacific Ocean in northern San Diego county and a few miles south of San Clemente.

SCE's Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer, Tom Palmisano laid out a timeframe that includes defueling and planning between now and 2015 and 10 years to dismantle the plant, including cleanup. He says it will be 2019 before all the spend nuclear fuel is out of cooling pools and into dry cask storage. 

The nuclear waste yet to be stored includes roughly 1400 metric tons of material, including plutonium and strontium.

It's the storage of that highly radioactive fuel that many panel members, and most of the 30 people who spoke to the panel, are concerned about.

Panel member Gene Stone, with San Clemente-based Residents Organized for a Safe Environment, said the current method of storing that waste should be improved.

"We know that earthen bermed dry cask storage is much better than having, as we do know, all 50 dry casks lined up in a row. We have to convince Edison and the PUC and the NRC to spend the extra money to do it right with storage."

Stone referred to the current storage of spent fuel on the site. There is no permanent storage in the U.S. for highly radioactive nuclear waste. When a plant is decommissioned, the spent fuel is stored at the facility in steel and concrete lined casks.

Dana Point Mayor and panel member Lisa Bartlett asked about the earthquake risk for dry cask storage.

SCE's Palmisano said the dry cask storage system is designed to exceed the "earthquake spectrum" for the San Onofre plant.
Jenifer Massey of San Clemente told the panel "We need to get this stuff out of here." But, there's no place to send it — it could be at San Onofre for decades or hundreds of years. 

The panel's next meeting is tentatively scheduled for May, with dates and location yet to be determined. The panel also plans workshops on topics ranging from plant security, storage of the nuclear waste and concerns about earthquake, tsunami and terrorism risk. 

Update 9:30 p.m.: Community raises nuclear waste storage, energy costs 

Experts briefed the public and took their questions and input on the decommissioning process of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in the first meeting of a community advisory panel Tuesday night in San Clemente. 

The Chair of the panel, David Victor, told an audience of several hundred that the decommissioning would be "a huge engineering project, as hard to dismantle as [it was] to build." 

The plant's chief nuclear officer, Thomas Palmisano, briefed the audience on the utility's plans to decommission the site. Palmisano said the clean-up of San Onofre would take "about 10 years," which would include the process of dismantling the plant. He estimated that it would take five years for the spent nuclear fuel to be moved from the plant's pools into dry cask storage. 

RELATED: FAQ: How will San Onofre store its spent nuclear fuel?

Responding to community members' concerns, Palmisano said the storage system was designed and licensed to exceed earthquake spectrum of the area. 

"We're at the start of the end of San Onofre," he said.

Following a brief break, community members raised concerns about the impact the shutdown of San Onofre would have on energy costs, and the long-term storage of nuclear waste. The advisory committee responded that it would use the public comments to craft public workshops and future briefings.

KPCC reporter Ed Joyce live tweeted the discussion. You can see the archive of his reporting here

You can see the full presentation from SoCal Edison here: 

PDF: SoCal Edison's presentation on decommissioning San Onofre nuke plant

6 a.m.: Groups seek answers on San Onofre nuclear waste

One of the key concerns of several environmental groups is the long-term storage of nuclear waste at the San Onofre nuclear plant. The facility, on the northern San Diego county coast, is just a few miles south of San Clemente.

A community engagement panel was created by majority owner Southern California Edison to provide input on the decommissioning of the plant; it meets for the first time from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the San Clemente Community Center, 100 N. Calle Seville. 

SCE announced on June 7, 2013 that it would retire the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. At the time of the announcement, the plant had been shut down since January 2012 after a small radiation leak  led to the discovery of unusually rapid wear on tubes that carry radioactive water in the plant's two reactors. Inspections found wear from friction and vibration in 15,000 places, in varying degrees, in 3,401 tubes inside four replacement generators.

RELATED: Want to own a part of the San Onofre nuclear power plant? Here's your chance

"Although we agree that we want the nuclear waste removed yesterday, if not sooner, there are some complicated issues," said Gary Headrick, founder of San Clemente Green, a longtime vocal opponent of the San Onofre plant. "This is the first significant opportunity to express our concerns and we intend to make it clear that we want what is best for the community."

Headrick said his group's first priority is to secure the nuclear waste on the site "before the next big, inevitable earthquake happens."

The U.S. has no long-term permanent storage for highly radioactive nuclear waste, which means the most highly-radioactive waste is stored on site: first cooled in fuel pools, then moved to sealed steel casks.

Headrick has a list of recommendations, including "transporting the nuclear waste to a remote location as soon as one is available."

Gene Stone, with San Clemente-based Residents Organized for a Safe Environment, is one of the panel members. He echoed Headrick's concern about the storage of nuclear waste on the site. 

"We would like to see berm upgrades with a higher tsunami wall, that will not only make storage safer from natural events, but from potential terrorist attacks too," said Stone. "As a member of the panel, I'd like to see the SCE plans in case of an accident with any nuclear waste in dry cask storage."

RELATED: Edison names 14 members of San Onofre nuclear plant advisory panel

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said dry cask storage allows spent fuel that has already been cooled in a spent fuel pool to be surrounded by inert gas inside a container or cask. The cask is a steel cylinder that "provides a leak-tight confinement of the spent fuel."

Most spent nuclear fuel is stored in pools for up to five years until they cool down. Once cooled, they are transferred into dry cask storage. San Onofre now has about 40 casks full of spent fuel. The majority of the plant's radioactive waste is still in spent fuel pools waiting to be moved into dry casks.

Edison International Chairman Ted Craver told reporters in June 2013 that closing the San Onofre nuclear plant would take decades, cost a lot, leave hundreds unemployed and result in spent nuclear fuel that would be stored "for a very long time" directly on the plant's current site.

Chris Thompson, SCE vice president of decommissioning, will oversee the San Onofre process, including the engagement panel. 

"Public engagement is essential to our goal to decommission San Onofre in a transparent and inclusive way,” said Thompson.

SCE said the first CEP meeting will include an overview of plans to dismantle the facility in 15 to 20 years, as well as a public comment period. Members of the public also may sign up on the plant’s website to receive regular e-mail updates about San Onofre’s decommissioning.

The current owners of San Onofre are SCE, San Diego Gas and Electric and the city of Riverside. SCE said the city of Anaheim was a previous owner and that current and previous owners are responsible for decommissioning.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date Southern California Edison announced it was closing the San Onofre nuclear plant. The text has been corrected. 

This story has been updated.