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Judge Likely to OK Decommission Plan for San Onofre Nuclear Plant

Southern California’s iconic nuclear power plant has remained a fixture along San Diego County coastline even after its closure in 2013.

LOS ANGELES (CN) --- Along the Pacific Coast in San Diego County looms the defunct San Onofre nuclear power plant with its double hemispherical containment buildings. But they may not be there for much longer: On Wednesday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge said he’s inclined to allow Southern California Edison to move ahead with a plan to dismantle the site.

In the 1970s the plant’s signature domes played backdrop to anti-nuclear protests, but in 2013 the site closed due to a radioactive leak and premature wear on steam generators. The closure set off years of wrangling over what to do with the site, its sprawling infrastructure and the 3 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel waste contained in stainless steel canisters that remain there.

In 2019, the California Coastal Commission approved Southern California Edison’s plans to decommission and decontaminate the site. Those plans include the removal of a pair of storage pools used to cool down radioactive fuel rods.

The Samuel Lawrence Foundation sued the commission, a quasi-judicial body that regulates land development along the coast, claiming it did not consider the full impact of the decommission plan. Namely, the foundation focused on how SoCal Edison would bury spent cannisters at the site and if necessary move them later due to rising sea levels.

And the group said people working at the site in the future would need the pools in case of an emergency with any damaged cannisters. The petition accuses the commission of abusing its authority in approving the decommission plan and asked LA County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff to halt the demolition of the pools and support buildings.

On Wednesday, Beckloff issued a tentative order in which he found the commission did not abuse its discretion. Beckloff said the foundation’s petition challenging the commission’s analysis and the 2019 permit approval to decommission the plant, which he refers to as SONGS, is lacking.

“The issues before this court on this action are not about the wisdom of the manner in which SONGS will be decommissioned,” wrote Beckloff.

The foundation cited a specific section of the Coastal Act in its petition, arguing the commission body sidestepped the analysis when consider new development plans near the coast.

Beckloff found the cited section of the act only involves new coastal developments. While the decommission plan will involve some form of construction, it falls within the footprint of the existing SONGS site.

“The new development is not outside of existing developed areas such that individual and cumulative impacts on coastal resources must be considered. In the context of petitioner’s challenge (the spent fuel pools), the new development is the removal of previously permitted development,” Beckloff wrote.

The foundation's attorney Sabrina Venskus called the issue of spent nuclear fuel “the elephant in the room that is not being analyzed” by the California Coastal Commission. The lack of any new federal depository for nuclear waste leaves California with few options, she told Beckloff during a hearing Wednesday.

“We have a situation here that’s a ticking timebomb with no analysis,” she said.

SoCal Edison attorney Edward Casey from Alston & Bird said the foundation complains of a lack of analysis, but “they turn a blind eye to the extensive cumulative impact” analysis in an environmental impact report submitted to the commission.

Beckloff noted the substantial evidence offered by the Coastal Commission’s findings on the destruction of the spent fuel pools.

“That is, substantial evidence shows — even after dismantling the spent fuel pools — safe storage and transport alternatives for SNF (spent nuclear fuel) exist,” Beckloff wrote in the tentative order.

He took Wednesday’s arguments under submission.

In a statement, SoCal Edison said they look forward to the court’s final ruling.

“Southern California Edison has consistently maintained that the California Coastal Commission appropriately reached its unanimous decision granting the coastal development permit after rigorous analysis and review,” the utility said in a statement. “The dismantlement of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) continues to progress in a safe and timely manner.”

The San Diego Gas & Electric Company, City of Riverside and city of Anaheim are also listed as real parties in interest. The Samuel Lawrence Foundation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Categories:Energy, Environment, Regional

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