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How a nuclear stalemate left radioactive waste stranded on a California beach

Nuclear waste is all dressed up with nowhere to go

Photography by Will Poor | Video by Cory Zapatka | Graphics by Alex Parkin

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When I got to the San Onofre State Beach about 60 miles north of San Diego, the red sun of fire season was sandwiched on the horizon between a layer of fog and the sea. Surfers floated in a line off the shore. It looked like any other California beach — except for the row of signs that warned “Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Area,” and the twin reactor domes rising above the bluffs.

I was there to see the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a shuttered nuclear power plant right next to the Pacific Ocean. It once supplied electricity to Southern California, but was permanently shut down in 2013. It’s now scheduled to be dismantled, but even when that happens, more than 1,700 tons of spent nuclear fuel will remain — interred in enormous concrete casks behind a seawall. There’s nowhere else to put it.

“It’s part of the landscape now.”

On the beach, perspectives on the plant ranged from resignation to frustration. “It’s part of the landscape now,” said one man walking his dog. A woman who was roasting marshmallows in the sand with her family said it’s eerie to see the plant when she’s out surfing: “You turn around and take a wave, and you just see these nuclear boobs staring out at you.” Her husband wondered what will happen with the spent nuclear fuel now that the plant is no longer operating. “No citizen wants it here permanently, but nobody wants to take it,” he said. “So we’re just in a really hard spot. What are you supposed to do with it?”

It’s a question that nuclear power plants around the country are reckoning with as low natural gas prices, costly repairs, and political pressure have driven a half dozen reactors to retire early since 2013, according to the Department of Energy. More are slated to shut down in the next ten years — including Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear power plant, Rob Nikolewski reports for The San Diego Union-Tribune. That leaves communities that are no longer benefiting from nuclear power saddled with its waste — cooling off in gigantic pools of water made out of reinforced concrete or steel and concrete containers called dry storage.

All those containers of fuel left behind mean that no one can use the land for anything else. And the problem is widespread: spent fuel from commercial reactors is scattered across roughly 80 sites in 35 different states, according to the Government Accountability Office. It wasn’t supposed to be like this: for decades, the plan has been to bury highly radioactive nuclear waste underground. (There were also proposals to bury the waste in the ocean or shoot it into the sun — but those weren’t as practical, according to a report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.)

The idea is that a geologic repository would keep the waste away from people as the radioactivity decays — which can take hundreds of thousands of years, depending on the material. In the 1980s, the government settled on Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the most likely spot and planned to start taking shipments of spent nuclear fuel in 1998. In return, the deal was that utilities — really, their customers — would start paying ahead into a fund that would cover the costs. But Nevada politicians like Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) hated what became known as the “screw Nevada bill,” and the project has hit delay after delay ever since.

“We’re just in a really hard spot. What are you supposed to do with it?”

Now, utilities like Southern California Edison, which operated San Onofre, are stuck in a holding pattern: guarding the waste, and suing the government for billions of taxpayer dollars to pay for it. “The federal government has not fulfilled their obligation to come take the fuel from this plant site, or any commercial plant site,” Ron Pontes, team manager of decommissioning environmental strategy at San Onofre, told me. “So, until they do so, the fuel is here and we are charged with taking care of it.”

Verge Science’s video team and I went on a tour of the plant to see what it means to take care of that fuel. First, though, we had to get through security. That meant gearing up with hard hats and safety glasses, signing off that we hadn’t had alcohol in past five hours, and taking our boots off to go through an airport-style security portal. Then came another stop to have our hands scanned and get buzzed through metal turnstiles and into the protected area.

Once staffed by roughly 2,200 people, there are now just a few hundred working on-site, including security personnel. And outside on the pavement encircled by metal fences, the place felt empty. Except for the seagulls, the sound of the waves, and the occasional concussive booms from the neighboring US Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, it was quiet.

Our guide was Pontes, the decommissioning team manager, a white-haired 61-year-old in a blue button-up whose career started on nuclear submarines in the Navy. He led us into a dark, red metal building tangled with pipes and metal tubes, and then into an elevator. There were only four cryptic buttons for the floors labeled 9, 30, 50, and 70 — for the number of feet above sea level. We went to 70, the top of the structure housing the massive metal turbines. Those don’t turn anymore: “The turbine is just so much iron now,” Pontes says. “It serves no purpose.”

“The turbine is just so much iron now. It serves no purpose.”

From there, we could look out to see a white buoy floating in the ocean, marking the end of massive tubes that sucked in seawater to cool the plant. The dome of the Unit 3 reactor building towered behind us. Powered up in the 1980s, Units 2 and 3 are mirror images of each other. (Unit 1 was dismantled in 2008.) Inside those grey concrete domes, uranium atoms split in a chain reaction to produce heat. That’s the business end of this operation,” Pontes says. “That’s where the heat is generated that is transmitted to the steam generators, makes steam to turn the turbines, which makes electricity for our customers.”

He used present tense — but the plant hasn’t made electricity in years. Not since a steam generator in the Unit 3 dome sprung a leak in 2012. These days, Southern California Edison is preparing to decommission the plant — a $4.4 billion process that’s anticipated to take 20 years. First, though, they had to move the bundles of nuclear fuel rods from the reactor cores into Olympic-sized, steel-lined cooling pools. (We didn’t get to see them, but Pontes says that the crystal-clear water looks “very inviting to swim in.”)

By the middle of 2019, the plan is to shift all of the fuel into steel containers encased in massive concrete blocks. Called dry storage, it’s air-cooled so it’s lower maintenance than the pools: it’s designed to keep the radioactive fuel from overheating without using water, pumps, or electricity. These concrete monoliths are supposed to hold up against floods, earthquakes, tornadoes even an airplane collision, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The dry storage comes in two flavors on the San Onofre site: in one, the canisters stand up vertically in the steel-lined cavities of a massive concrete block; in another, they slide in horizontally, like corpses into a nuclear morgue.

With so few people at the plant, nature was making a comeback: on our way to the dry storage, our security escort had to hang back to call in a swarm of bees that had colonized a piece of equipment. Pontes imagined what the future of the plant will look like, when it’s finally decommissioned. “At the end of the day, all that’s left here is the dry storage facility and the security officers that will be monitoring this facility,” he said. And both could be there for awhile.

A swarm of bees had colonized a piece of equipment

There are a few possible fixes. Two different private companies have applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for licenses to construct interim storage facilities in Texas and New Mexico. But the key word there is interim: these sites would be temporary holding areas for fuel that will eventually move to a permanent repository — like Yucca Mountain, the controversial site in Nevada that’s about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and across the state line from Death Valley in California.

At first, the list of possible long-term repositories for highly radioactive waste was longer than just Yucca Mountain. Hanford in Washington state and Deaf Smith County in Texas also rose to the top, according to a report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Plus, there were supposed to be two repositories, so that one state wouldn’t be stuck with an entire nation’s nuclear waste. “And then the idea was you couldn’t do this quick and dirty, you’d spend several years and a billion dollars at each of those three sites,” says Robert Halstead, executive director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects.

But the selection process dragged out, grew expensive, and none of those states were happy about being at the top of that particular list. So in 1987, Congress decided to just pick one site for the DOE to investigate: Yucca Mountain. The DOE “put a five-mile tunnel through the mountain, and did the science, and concluded this is a good place,” says Lake Barrett, who headed up the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management at the time, and is now retired. He called it “the most studied piece of real estate on Earth.”

Nevada objected to the DOE’s conclusions — but Congress overrode that veto and in 2002, Congress and the president gave the DOE their blessing to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, for a license to start construction. Pretty much as soon as the NRC began officially reviewing the application in 2008, the whole thing started grinding to a halt.

“The most studied piece of real estate on Earth.”

By then, Harry Reid (D-NV) was the Senate majority leader  — and he opposed shoving “nuclear waste down a community’s throat,” he said in a statement in 2015. Barack Obama had campaigned on promises to prevent Yucca Mountain from opening, and once he took office, the funding for it dried up. After the DOE tried unsuccessfully to withdraw its licensing application in 2010, the operation mostly shut down. “People who used to work for me, they were all laid off,” Barrett says.

Since then, the NRC’s technical staff completed part of the licensing process when it issued its safety evaluation report in 2015. But the commission hasn’t restarted the hearings necessary to weigh stakeholder concerns about the project — and it would need to, if Yucca Mountain were ever to become a nuclear waste repository. Now, a bill introduced by John Shimkus (R-IL) that passed the House in May proposes to clear the way for the licensing to proceed and would authorize interim storage facilities. It would let Nevada negotiate compensation in return for hosting the repository, ensure the DOE has the land rights it needs for the site, and increase the amount of waste that could be stored in the Yucca Mountain repository.

The bill probably won’t get anywhere. “Historically, the Senate’s not going to move,” Shimkus said in an interview with The Verge. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) called the bill “dead on arrival” in the Senate. But Shimkus says the bill shows the House’s collective support for funding Yucca Mountain. That’s key as the House and the Senate haggle over the budget for fiscal year 2019. “We’re waiting to see how this final dance happens,” Shimkus says.  

Halstead, over at Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, said, “The bill is a declaration of war on the state of Nevada.” There are two big things wrong with it, according to Halstead: “They think that they can force this down Nevada’s throat, and they’re not going to be able to — and secondly, they think the Department Of Energy can carry out the program,” he says, adding that the state of Nevada can “whup the Department of Energy. So bring it on.”

“They think that they can force this down Nevada’s throat.”

Nevada’s skepticism about Yucca Mountain is understandable, says Rod Ewing, a professor of geological sciences at Stanford University. For one thing, there were some 100 nuclear devices exploded in the air above Nevada. “They were told it was safe. Didn’t turn out quite that way,” he says. Plus, Ewing says, “They don’t have nuclear power plants, but you’re asking them to take the waste?”

Yucca Mountain wouldn’t be his first choice for a repository, either. “I’m not saying that it’s not safe,” Ewing says. But he also argues that it doesn’t “satisfy the common sense requirements of a geologic repository.” For example, in the 1990s, scientists found signs that water may percolate through the rock faster than expected. And the most likely way for radiation to escape the repository would be by hitching a ride with flowing water.

But other research groups have had trouble replicating those results. And Barrett pushes back, saying that very little water flows, it won’t get into rivers or the ocean, and the waste containers are designed to prevent what goes into Yucca Mountain from getting out. “You can make these arguments to justify whatever your political motivation might happen to be,” Barrett says.

The thing is, we know that progress toward an underground nuclear repository is possible — just look at Finland, which could start filling its underground repository with waste in the next decade, according to Timo Äikäs, a retired geologist who worked on the project. And Äikäs has an idea about why it’s so far ahead. There are a few hurdles to clear in order to build a geologic repository, he says. The first is to make sure the site is safe. “Today, in all countries which have operated nuclear power stations for several decades, there is lots of knowledge about these safety requirements,” he says.

“The program is running, and running, and running, and nothing happens.”

The second, “which is much more tricky,” Äikäs says, is convincing people to accept it. And that’s where other countries have stalled. “Everything boils down to trust,” Äikäs says. Without it, he says, “there will be no decisions, or the decisions will be postponed — and then the program is running, and running, and running, and nothing happens.”

That’s what’s happening here in the US, and it’s getting to the point where the government has to make a call about Yucca Mountain, because the clock is ticking, Shimkus says. “If the decision is that it’s not safe, then we have to start the process all over again — that means another 30 years and another, at minimum, $15 billion,” Shimkus says.

Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations (ISFSI) at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations (ISFSI) at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

Until Yucca Mountain, interim storage, or an entirely new site are ready, the waste is going to sit where it was generated. None of the experts I spoke to are worried that radioactive fuel in dry storage could endanger people nearby. “There have not been any leaks of radiation from a dry cask in this country,” Neil Sheehan, a spokesperson for the NRC, said in an email.

But recent mishaps at San Onofre have sparked local concerns. A loose pin in a new type of fuel canister raised alarm bells about faulty manufacturing. Southern California Edison stopped using those particular containers, and there have been no signs of trouble in the few that had already been filled with waste, Southern California Edison spokesperson Julie Holt told me. More recently, another fuel canister jammed on its way down into the concrete vault and could have fallen, Rob Nikolewski at the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. “If this had occurred, it would not have created a hazard to the public or employees,” Tom Palmisano, vice president of decommissioning, said in a letter that was shared with The Verge.

“We agree that it’s better to move the fuel away from this site, okay?”

Still, the presiding sentiment among the people I spoke to is that keeping the waste at San Onofre, or any other plants across the country, is not a workable long-term plan. “The challenges here over the long term, the very long term, is that the sea level is rising,” Pontes, our guide at the San Onofre plant, said to us in front of one of the dry storage blocks that stretched toward the sandy bluffs. That means that eventually, the fuel might have to move to higher ground. “We agree that it’s better to move the fuel away from this site, okay?” he said. “But, while it’s here, we will fulfill our obligation to manage it safely.”

Pontes took us to the top of the newest dry storage monolith — the one where the canisters sit upright, and circulate air through chimney-like vents. We weren’t allowed next to the canisters with fuel in them. Those were blocked off by rope, and radiated heat in shimmering waves. Eventually, there will be 73 filled spent fuel canisters encased in concrete, plus two containers that will be left empty. One of those will be heated to mimic the presence of fuel, to monitor how the canisters weather over years in the salty air.

Pontes walked us along the line of concrete lids for the empty fuel containers, and told us how robust the system is: three feet of reinforced concrete in the foundation. Two feet of reinforced concrete at the top. And sandwiched in between? More concrete. I wondered what that meant for earthquakes — and Pontes told me that the concrete block is supposed to withstand even bigger earthquakes than the plant was designed to take. What about tsunamis? “The analyzed tsunami is much lower than the seawall,” he said. “If this were to be swamped, you could have 125 feet of water above the top of these cylinders.” After a flood, they’d pump out the water, clean off the canisters, and continue operating, he said.

“Eventually, it becomes untenable,”

But nature is coming for the spent fuel canisters in ways their designers may not have anticipated — in the form of seagulls, and their poop. When the plant was operating, the seagulls liked to nest on the warm containment buildings, Pontes says. “Once we shut down and there were fewer people on-site and less activity, they seem to have returned — in a big way.”

Now, the dry storage lids are splattered with droppings. To be clear, the poop won’t endanger the fuel. But to keep the birds from getting too comfortable, fake coyotes stand guard amid the canisters of nuclear waste and snarl from the tops of plastic traffic cones. They’re keeping the dry storage as seagull-free as they can until the Department of Energy is ready to pick up the fuel. Pontes thinks that will have to happen, one day: “Eventually, it becomes untenable,” he says. “The problem that we have with this fuel being here is a problem that exists almost everywhere.”

On our way out of the plant, we ran a Geiger counter over our hands and feet. It clicked as it checked us for radiation. We were fine.