What's Going on With Nuclear Waste Being Buried at San Onofre?

Matt Rode

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Updated 275d ago

The distinctive white landmark overlooking San Onofre State Beach is back in the news again, as Southern California Edison has begun the process of moving nuclear waste from wet storage into dry storage.

The construction of a new dry storage unit has been at the centre of much controversy and public debate over the past few years, ever since San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was decommissioned in 2013 amid concerns that it was no longer able to operate safely.

Will Trestles become the next Fukushima?

The debate was rekindled last year when satellite images were made public of the location of the new dry storage unit, which is a little over 100 feet from the coastline. Local environmentalists are worried about the potential for an earthquake, tsunami, or flood-related disaster that could lead to radiation leaks into the water around San Onofre, an historic surfing zone located between Orange and San Diego Counties.

Despite public outcry, Edison’s plans received approval, and transfer began in early February 2018. Operations were then temporarily halted in early March 2018 after a loose bolt was discovered in one of the storage casks, but transfer of the nuclear waste started again 10 days later after safety teams gave the green light. Unsurprisingly, this led to yet another round of debate and protest between the various parties involved.

While the reasons for concern are obvious—eight million people live within 50-miles of the storage site, Southern California is crisscrossed with earthquake-prone fault lines, and no one wants to see Lower Trestles become a repeat of Fukushima—representatives from Edison claim that the nuclear waste dry storage is much safer than the wet storage currently in place.

San Onofre power station closed in 2013.

San Onofre power station closed in 2013.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station created around 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste, which has to be stored somewhere, along with the other 80,000 metric tons of total nuclear waste that has been created by the numerous nuclear power plants around the country.

San Onofre is not the only surf zone that has been threatened by the specter of nuclear disaster in recent years. Thyspunt in South Africa has long been eyed as a prospective site for a nuclear power plant, a fact that upsets many J-Bay surfers, who fear that the country’s most populous surf zone could be endangered.

In late 2017, however, the Thyspunt nuclear project was reportedly put on hold when a replacement site was approved at Duynefontein in the Western Cape, where environmental impacts are said to be much smaller.

Many in Southern California are calling for similar action by the US government, with local advocates and environmental groups petitioning for the San Onofre waste to be moved to the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. Unfortunately, that facility has not yet begun operation, and its future is currently uncertain.

The state of California is the second largest consumer of energy in the US (only Texas consumes more), and Southern California in particular is essentially a desert that has been made hospitable only through the use of energy and borrowed water.

So while environmental concerns surrounding nuclear power are not to be dismissed, the issue has many sides that require consideration.

The harsh reality is that the heavily populated Southern California region (which appeals to millions of surfers and other residents seeking a temperate, coastal climate with all of the convenient trappings of urban life) requires a lot of energy to exist, and energy is never clean.

While it is a popular and perhaps appropriate pastime to jump on the anti-nuke bandwagon—especially when our waves and homes are at risk—the reality is that anyone consuming on-grid electricity in the Southern California reason is somewhat culpable for the existence of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, and the nuclear waste that is at the heart of this debate.

Until we find alternative ways to sustain our modern lifestyles—accept that our consumption habits are unsustainable and must change—issues like this will continue to exist.

In the meantime, the best we can hope for is that regulatory bodies and various corporate entities responsible for the management of our wasteful by-products can do their jobs effectively and responsibly, and keep our coastlines, oceans, and waves as safe and clean as possible.