San Diegans Lash Coastal Commission About Nuclear Waste

SAN DIEGO (CN) – The California Coastal Commission received a tongue-lashing Wednesday from experts and citizens at a hearing about its 2015 permit to allow spent nuclear waste to be buried on a Southern California beach.

Southern California Edison has said it will start burying nuclear waste at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station site by the end of the year. But the commission chairwoman suggested a watchdog group might file a petition to revoke Edison’s permit, granted two years ago.

The Coastal Development Permit allowed Southern California Edison to bury spent nuclear waste onsite at San Onofre in steel canisters. It sparked outrage from residents concerned about safety hazards, including tsunamis and earthquakes.

The permit is good for 20 years and will require Edison (SCE) to go before the commission again to get it extended.

Operations at the nuclear power plant stopped in 2012 after reactor coolant leaked from an 11-month-old steam generator.

Citizens Oversight, a government watchdog nonprofit, sued the Coastal Commission and SCE over the permit in 2015. They settled the case in August this year, with the terms of settlement laying out a plan to take the first steps toward moving the nuclear waste away from the beach and into a temporary waste repository.

Despite knowing of the pressing problem for decades, the federal government has yet to build a permanent nuclear waste storage facility, though nuclear waste plants in Texas and New Mexico have suggested they would be open to storing waste from San Onofre in the interim.

Everyone at the Wednesday meeting appeared to agree on one thing: The nuclear waste has got to go as soon as possible.

However, the soonest the spent fuel in the canisters could be safely moved is in about 10 years. Many speakers raised concerns that the canisters might crack, rendering them unsafe to move, which would require the spent fuel to stay at San Onofre permanently.

Some suggested that safety and longevity problems with the canisters could be enough to revoke the permit so the Coastal Commission can review other options.

Many representatives from state and local offices spoke, including Oceanside City Councilman Jerry Kern, who said he wants San Onofre to “be first in line” to move its spent fuel to a more secure location.

San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre, who represents Citizens Oversight, asked the commission to come up with an enforcement plan to ensure the settlement terms are complied with.

He said the settlement is not the end of the problem for the commission.

“If this isn’t the most challenging decision you face as commissioners, I think we’d all be hard-pressed to find another issue,” Aguirre said.

He added: “You could decide not to put nuclear waste on the beach because it’s inconsistent with the Coastal Act, period.”

Citizens Oversight plaintiff Ray Lutz told the commissioners the issue is “a bazillion times worse than someone not being able to get to the beach.”

“This is a nuclear waste facility. You’ve got to dedicate some real time to this,” Lutz said.

Representatives from the nonprofit Public Watchdogs said new information has been discovered since the permit was approved in 2015, including sea level rise studies ordered by the commission, which show how vulnerable the coastline near the nuclear storage site is.

Public Watchdogs executive director Charles Langley brought more than 500 signed petitions calling for the permit to be revoked. Commission Chairwoman Dayna Bochco directed Langley to get in touch with commission staff on how to file a petition to revoke the permit.

Bochco complimented the speakers, saying: “You’re all really smart and informed and sometimes we don’t always get that input.”

Commissioners Mark Vargas and Steve Padilla asked staff to draft a letter to the federal government asking for action and funding for a permanent nuclear waste storage facility.

After the hearing, Langley told Courthouse News he believes Wednesday’s hearing signaled a change in the way the commission is engaging with the public about San Onofre.

“This is really the first time they listened to citizen voices and took it seriously,” Langley said.

“The relationship between the attorneys, public advocates and commissioners has at times been uncivil. But today the chair gave Public Watchdogs specific directions to meet with commission staff. … They’re basically saying, ‘Come on, revoke the vote.’”

(Photo shows the beach at San Onofre.)

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