Surfrider is opposed to permanent or long-term storage of radioactive waste at the deactivated San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) due to its proximity to the coastline, susceptibility to geological instability and location within a densely populated area. Nearly 8 million people reside in the vicinity, and it is directly adjacent to one of the United States’ busiest highways. Surfrider is actively engaged in advocating to remove the waste as quickly as possible to a federally approved, geologically secure, consent based permanent repository within a specific timeline.
SONGS is located on a coastal bluff in between two sections of San Onofre State Beach, just south of San Clemente, California. SONGS has always been exposed to the risks of earthquakes (the Newport-Inglewood-Rose Canyon fault zone lies just offshore), bluff erosion, storm surge and wave events. Likewise, its location in highly populated Southern California has not changed since the first unit began operation in 1968.
Locating a nuclear power plant at this site was a bad idea from the start. Although the plant was permanently retired in 2013, it is still home to the radioactive material (spent fuel rods, liquid waste, contaminated debris) that helped feed Southern California’s energy demand for the last 45-plus years.
There are two very significant reasons why the spent fuel is still being stored onsite at San Onofre. First, nuclear spent fuel requires time to cool off, decrease its radioactivity and increase its stability, before being able to be transfered to more secure storage and eventually transported to an offsite storage location. It is not yet feasible nor safe to move all of the canisters containing spent fuel, which require a minimum cooling period of about five years (though some fuel requires more time). Second, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission must designate a secure offsite location for safe long-term storage of nuclear material, and no such site presently exists in the United States.
San Onofre is not the only nuclear facility going through the decommissioning process. There are several decommissioned nuclear facilities waiting for approved final resting places for their spent nuclear fuel.
In October 2016, the California Coastal Commission approved an application by Southern California Edison (SCE) to store radioactive waste at SONGS in an onsite independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI). This facility was constructed at SONGS in 2017 and waste began the transfer to the ISFSI in early 2018. This allowed for the transfer of spent fuel assemblies from the cooling pools, where they previously resided for decades longer than the pools were designed for, to dry storage casks or “canisters”, which are steel cylinders filled with inert gas and placed into a concrete “monoloth”. The transfer process from pools to canisters was completed in 2020. For more on this see: http://www.beachapedia.org/Coastal_ISFSI_for_Nuclear_Waste. SCE is now in the process of disassembling and dismantling the majority of above ground structures onsite, including the domes, cooling pools, support buildings and more (learn more here). The ISFSI however, will remain trapped onsite indefinitely, until there is federal action.
In addition to the spent fuel rods that are now stored in steel canisters, there are also other radioactive substances onsite, including radioactive wastewater. During operation of the plant, and even after it was shut down but waste remained stored in spent fuel cooling pools, onsite water would become contaminated with radiation. Examples of contaminated water include condensation from fuel storage HVAC systems and the water in spent fuel cooling pools. Contaminated water would get collected, contained, and treated as much as possible to remove radioactive materials before getting released into the ocean, just offshore SONGS and the world reknowned surfing beach and state park: San Onofre Surf Beach. While treatment removes a significant amount of radioactive materials from the wastewater, it is not completely effective, and SONGS is actually permitted to release certain levels of radioactive wastewater into the marine environment, as long as it meets various requirements. Surfrider learned about radioactive batch releases in 2018, and immediately petitioned SCE and the CA State Lands Commission to provide advance public notification of upcoming releases so beachgoers and fishers could be aware of potential exposure. Fortunately SCE obligued, and SONGS became the first nuclear plant in the US to provide advance notification of liquid batch releases (48-hour notices). Surfrider tracks these releases and helps amplify notifications to allow for the public to make their own decisions on exposure. While the frequency of batch releases have been substantially reduced since the plant ended operations, 2023 is likely to see a surge in effluent releases as the spent fuel cooling pools are slated to be drained before eventual demolition of the structures. Thanks to donations from the local community, Surfrider has partnered with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Our Radioactive Ocean Program (ORO) to conduct radioactive wastewater monitoring of the discharge site and nearby surf lineup. Results will be posted on WHOI's website and easily accessible by all. Results of the initial samples in 2021 indicate low levels of radiation, slightly elevated above ambient ocean conentrations of Cesium-137, yet well within the NRC permitted levels. Click here to learn more about this effort and results to date.
At the federal level, there are several bills currently proposed that attempt to address the problems posed by spent nuclear fuel:
The Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the 117th Congress. H.R. 1524/S. 541 requires consent for the transport and storage of nuclear waste by the states, local governments and tribes that will be affected by the process. Technically, it prohibits the Secretary of the Interior from using Nuclear Waste Fund to transport or store spent nuclear fuel without agreement with governments who will be affected by the transport or storage. This bill was introduced by Nevada Senator Cortez Masto and Rep. Titus (NV-1).
The STORE Nuclear Fuel Act of 2021 (H.R. 2097), which stands for Storage and Transport of Residual and Excess Nuclear Fuel Act, was introduced by Califoria Rep. Matsui (CA-6) on March 19, 2021, and requires the development of interim storage for spent nuclear fuel. Specifically, the bill directs the Secretary of Energy to establish a program to site, construct, and operate interim spent nuclear fuel storage facilities, and to contract with non-Federal entities for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel. It also requires prioritization of the acceptance of 1) spent nuclear fuel from permanently shut-down civilian nuclear power reactors and 2) any “emergency delivery” as defined by the Act. Finally, it provides that the Secretary of Energy “may select” a site for developing a storage facility if the Secretary enters into a consent agreement with the state where the facility will be sited, each affected unit of local government, and any affected Indian tribe.
The STRANDED Act of 2021 was introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators in both the House and the Senate. The Sensible, Timely Relief for America's Nuclear Districts' Economic Development Act (H.R. 3731/S. 1290) was introduced on April 21, 2021 to establish grant funds for nuclear-affected communities. It also creates a $500,000 prize for a prize competition for proposals for affected communities to carry out alternatives to nuclear facilities, generating sites, and waste sites. It establishes grants for nuclear affected communities equal to $15 per kilogram of spent nuclear fuel stored at plants in such communities.
Additionally, the local Task Force focusing on SONGS nuclear fuel storage issues, created by Rep. Levin (CA-49), is still active. The SONGS Task Force had its first meeting on April 25, 2019 and contains a Policy Committee and Technical Committee. The Policy Committee was formed to address stakeholder concerns on the management of spent nuclear fuel at SONGS, and the Technical Committee aims to address key technical concerns regarding the safe storage of waste while onsite at SONGS, as well as eventual transportation offsite. Surfrider is honored to hold two seats on the Task Force, with our Legal Director, Angela Howe, on the Policy Committee, and our staff scientist, Katie Day on the Technical Committee. You can read more about Surfrider’s participation on the Task Force and the published a report here. Rep. Levin introduced the Nuclear Waste Task Force Act (H.R. 5401) in September 2021 to create a task force to create a report on implications of removing environmental law exemptions from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 in order to create a consent-based system for dealing with nuclear waste. A Senate companion bill, S. 2871, was introduced by Massachusetts Senator Markey.
Assembly Bill No. 1207 (AB-1207) was introduced to the California Legislature in February 2017 by Assembly Member Bill Brough (R-Dana Point). The proposed bill aims to supplement existing State legislation on the transportation of hazardous radioactive material (§ 114820). Specifically, the proposed bill would require the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission to conduct a study to assess the efficacy of current regulations in minimizing the risks to public health and safety resulting from the transportation of hazardous radioactive materials.
In November 2015, Citizens Oversight filed a lawsuit against SCE, challenging their 2015 Coastal Commission permit that allows them to store spent fuel on site. The Plaintiff’s goal was to get the waste stored offsite. On August 29, the lawsuit settled and SCE agreed to several terms. As part of the agreement, SCE committed to spending $4 million to carry out their commitments under the agreement, including to hire an expert panel for transport and relocation of the waste, and for development of a contingency plan for cracked or damaged canisters. SCE will take “commercially reasonable” efforts to relocate to either a CISF, such as Holtec or Eddy Lea Energy’s proposed CIS in New Mexico and Waste Control Specialists’ proposed CISF in Texas, or an expanded ISFSI at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station – although Palo Verde has rejected that idea multiple times. SCE will have to provide Citizens Oversight with monthly progress reports on its efforts. However, the agreement did not stipulate a deadline for when the waste must be removed from San Onofre. In 2021, the Samuel Lawerence Foundation also attempted a lawsuit but this time against the California Coastal Commission, arguing against their decision to approve the dismantling of spent fuel pools. As of July 2021, the LA County court judge issued a tentative decision rejecting the lawsuit.
Since it appears that technical and political considerations make siting, approval and construction of a long-term nuclear waste storage facility very unlikely in the foreseeable future, the focus has turned to establishing a process to select a location, approve and build one or more “interim consolidated storage facilities” where the nuclear waste from nuclear power plants across the United States can be safely stored for a few decades. Surfrider Foundation believes this search should be coupled with the development of a plan for long-term, permanent storage.
Surfrider Foundation will continue to advocate for the removal of the nuclear material away from the bluffs of San Onofre as soon as feasibly possible. There is no question that there are better and safer locations for this material than along the densely populated coastline of earthquake-riddled southern California.
Congress must take action to secure a location for a geologic repository deep underground that isolates this radioactive storage from the biosphere. We need legislation that not only authorizes new contracts for interim consolidated storage facilities, but also requires a final resting place to be sited and a mandatory timeline for solid waste transport and permanent storage. A panel of experts on nuclear waste hazards, transport and storage should be utilized to address the issue as well.
We call upon Congress to initiate a consent-based siting process with a mandatory timeline and resolution date for when this nuclear waste will be permanently removed from San Onofre beach.
Take action by signing Surfrider’s action alert: Tell Congress to Get Nuclear Waste Off the Beach at San Onofre.
For the latest update, visit the SONGS Community Engagement website and view the most recent Community Engagement Panel Meeting.