San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about deadly radiation at the failed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

Q.   What happened at San Onofre?

A.    Edison violated the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR 50.59) requiring the safe operation of a nuclear reactor.

  • Edison knowingly installed unsafe, unlicensed nuclear generators in 2011, while averting a review by the NRC (Source).
  • The reactors were then operated outside the allowable limits for pressure and temperature, causing a radiation leak that shut the facility down in 2012 (Source).
  • The same engineering management team that by-passed an NRC review are now in charge of designing the nuclear waste disposal.

Q.   The San Onofre nuclear power plant was shut down in 2012. So what is at stake now?

A. Southern California Edison applied to the CA Coastal Commission for a permit to bury its radioactive nuclear waste on site, and the permit was granted on October 6, 2015.  The planned radioactive waste dump  site is located:

  • In the center of 8.5 million people who live within the 50-mile radioactive plume radius identified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
  • Near an earthquake fault (the Newport Inglewood fault, which connects to the Rose Canyon fault)
  • In a tsunami zone
  • 108 feet from the ocean and as little as 3 feet above the water table
  • Next to an Interstate highway that carries 20,000 vehicles an hour
  • Adjacent to the 2nd busiest rail corridor in the U.S.A.

Q.   What is the risk to the ocean and public lands?

A.  Each dry canister contains a payload of 37 spent fuel assemblies. The radiation contained in each of the 75 casks is equal to  9.3 nuclear warheads. That’s total a radioactive equivalent of 700 nuclear warheads. Below is a satellite photo of the ISFSI (Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation).

Satellite photo of what will be the largest privately-owned nuclear waste dump in the U.S.A..

As the satellite photos show, the site is 108 feet from the beach (see the red arrow).  To put things in perspective, the distance between first base and the home plate in baseball is 90 feet. So when you look at this , you can see that the radioactive waste dump is “adjacent to the seashore,” i.e. “on the beach.” The cliffs are already seriously eroded, and the existing seawall is threatened by rising sea levels, tidal waves, and extreme storm conditions.

The Coastal Commission will not approve repair or reinforcement of the seawall (the structure at the bottom end of the red arrow).  This seawall is the only buffer between the ocean and the radioactive waste. The Coastal Commission claims that it is preserving the coastline in its natural state by refusing the reinforcement of the seawall, notwithstanding its issuance of a permit for the waste burial in the first place.

In addition:

  • San Onofre State Beach Park will be converted into the largest privately owned nuclear waste dump (see the Public Watchdogs countdown clock).
  • If Edison gets away with this on one of the most pristine beaches in the country, it will set a national precedent for the other 100+ nuclear generating stations across the United States.

Q. What emergency preparations are in place in the event of a radioactive leak?

A.  The short answer is that all meaningful emergency response planning options have been gutted. For an in-depth answer, click here. Southern California Edison doesn’t have an off-site emergency response budget. Nor does it have a way of inspecting the casks for damage from saltwater corrosion, earthquakes, or cracking from a cask drop.

Q.  What are the best criteria for a site to bury the nuclear waste in the U.S. and does such a site exist?

A.    “Anywhere but the beach.”  The current beachfront location for the dump is not geologically stable, and is located in an area known as “Earthquake Bay”  (see our whitepaper on San Onofre Geology).

– San Onofre is located on an earthquake fault line
– It is  in a tsunami zone
– It is vulnerable to a terrorist attack or military action by enemies of the United States.
– The so-called “bluffs” that the waste will be stored in are only a few feet above the water table very low continue to  to erode

The safest waste storage is probably in a deep geological depository where it will never come in contact with human life, water supplies, or earthquake faults for at least 250,000 years, and where it can be precisely managed.

So far, two locations in Arizona and Texas have volunteered for compensation to accept burial of the waste on their site with significant resistance from local residents.  The Palo Verde nuclear station in the Mojave Desert could be under consideration, if Edison and our political representatives exert the political will to relocate its nuclear waste and resolve this issue

Q. Can the nuclear waste be moved?

A. Yes, but it is dangerous for the following reasons:
1. There are a few companies that claim they can move the waste safely, although these claims are questionable.
2. Each of the canisters at San Onofre has the equivalent radiation of an entire Chernobyl disaster.
3. By air, a plane crash or aerial release of just one canister would result in an accident that dwarfs the radiation released so far at Fukushima.
4. The canisters weigh up to half a million pounds. That means that most roads and some railroad lines would have to be rebuilt or specially equipped to
transport the materials safely.

Q.    Is there a precedent for nuclear waste to be transported from one location to another in this country?

A.     Yes, the U.S. Navy does it all the time. But the U.S. Navy is not subject to the same Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules as privately owned utilities and deals with much smaller amounts of nuclear waste.   At this time commercial spent nuclear fuel waste generated by utilities is not being transported.

Q. Is the nuclear waste safer in the spent fuel pools or moved to the canisters?

A.  Currently, the spent fuel rods are being cooled in deep pools to prevent a criticality event (meltdown). The canisters  must cool down for years until they reach 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that 750 degrees is a “safe” temperature before the waste can be moved into dry storage (Source).

If the fuel rods inside the delicate thin-walled canisters ever reach 900 degrees Centigrade (1,652°F), the zirconium cladding that surrounds the fuel pellets will self ignite, causing a meltdown (Source). There are a number of factors that could lead to a criticality event in dry storage.

Q.  Public Watchdogs says the dry casks are unsafe. Why?

Keeping the fuel in the spent fuel pools is the safest option for the short term until safer options are put on the table. Once the waste is interred, it will be more difficult — and perhaps impossible — to move it safely. Here’s why:

  1. The canisters (known as Holtec Hi-Storm)  have a design life of only 60 years and are only guaranteed to last 25 years.
  2. The concrete silos that the waste will be stored in are only guaranteed to last ten years.
  3. The waste is deadly for at least a quarter million years.
  4. If these delicate thin-walled canisters get an invisible microscopic crack, it will release millions of curies of radiation.
  5. One curie can be enough to kill you.
  6. A through-the-wall crack would release all of the helium inside the cask and initiate a meltdown.]
  7. The  current cask design requires passive air cooling. Once the casks are placed in their concrete silos, they are cooled by airflow around the casks. Because these casks are so close to the beach, the air spaces that allow for cooling are subject to flooding, which could eliminate the passive air cooling and start a deadly zirconium cladding fire.

The only way to deal with a deadly microscopic crack is to remove the canister from its silo and put it back under water. This can only be done safely in a spent fuel pool, making the pools an absolutely vital safety feature.  Yet Southern California Edison has declared its intent to destroy the spent fuel pools after the canisters are deployed.

Q.     What is required to keep Southern California Edison responsible for the waste they have created?

A.     Once Southern California Edison buries the waste on the beach, the waste moves a step closer to becoming “bona vacantia,” a legal term that means an “ownerless property for whom no-one is responsible.”  That means the government is responsible, but the government has failed to solve what is now a 65-year-old nuclear waste problem. By forcing Southern California Edison to maintain ownership of the waste, we will continue to have a politically powerful partner in seeking solutions to the problem.

Q. What is the Citizens’ Oversight lawsuit?

A. This is a long-shot legal action to revoke the Coastal Commission’s permit which was granted October 6, 2015.  Without the permit, Edison allegedly can’t bury the waste.


Q. What about Congressman Darrel Issa’s bill to remove the waste?

A.  While Darrell Issa’s bill has gotten great publicity, it still forces us  to store the waste on the beach for at least 30 years, and possibly up to 300 years given the current laws.   This law creates loopholes that make it easier on the nuclear industry by reducing current safety standards. These loopholes eliminate the current Nuclear Waste Policy Act  requirements as follows:

—  nuclear waste containers must allow for inspection for damages
—   Nuclear waste containers must allow for monitoring fro damage
—   Nuclear waste must be retrievable from the containers when they become damaged

Congressman Issa’s bill forces the citizens of Southern California to live with the perpetual threat of a deadly nuclear accident for at least 30 years.  And because it offers a temporary solution to nuclear waste disposal, it paves the way for the construction of more nuclear power plants in California. The way California law is currently written, it forbids nuclear power plant construction until there is a solution for storing the waste safely.

Q. Why did the California Coastal Commission grant a permit to Edison to bury nuclear waste near the beach?

 A.  The Coastal Commission voted unanimously in favor of a permit on October 6, 2015. The Coastal Commission Permit allows nuclear-waste canisters that the Commission knows cannot be inspected, repaired, maintained or adequately monitored and may prematurely crack and leak. The cans are not transportable if they are partially cracked.  An earthquake could crack one of the cans, and there is no seismic rating for the safety of the canisters.  The Commission  added “Special Conditions” to the permit that these problems must be solved AFTER 20 years, with no evidence that this is even possible.   Learn  more why the permit should be revoked.


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