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Although power is no longer being generated at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the plant still remains a potential trillion-dollar problem, warns anti-nuclear activist Ace Hoffman.

At issue is roughly 1,400 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel accumulated from decades’ worth of generation at the plant’s three reactors, which remains stored on site indefinitely.

With the site of San Onofre sitting on or near several earthquake faults, in a coastal setting potentially vulnerable to tsunamis, and within 50 miles of 8.7 million residents, Hoffman raises concern over dry cask storage, essentially a system of encasing nuclear waste within lead, steel, and concrete.

Nuclear experts have previously declared dry casks safer than leaving spent fuel rods sitting in open pools of water, but Hoffman feels even this is a “relatively flimsy” solution, saying the casks “cannot resist significant forces of any sort.”

While the casks are touted as a temporary storage solution, a long-term nuclear waste facility is at least three decades from development, and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has planned for the waste to sit along the California coast for up to 600 years.

“They might as well say it’s forever,” writes Hoffman in a recently published article.

“During that time, however long it is, the spent fuel will not be secured against terrorist attacks with satchel charges or rocket-propelled grenades — or depleted-uranium spears dropped from balloons, for that matter. These containments just aren’t that good,” Hoffman continues, also raising concerns about the possibilities of air or rail crashes nearby breaking the seal on one or more of the vessels.

Arguing that transportation issues will only become more complex as time passes and the casks weaken, Hoffman argues for beginning the process of finding a more suitable storage location, with improved security and a greater distance from population centers and potential natural disasters, immediately – even if another “temporary” home is found that could in all likelihood become permanent.

“A spent fuel accident at San Onofre Nuclear Waste Dump could cost a trillion dollars. The spent fuel will need to be guarded for hundreds of millennia, but right now it is MOST important that it be guarded properly.”

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This sort of storage problem is one facing all the nuclear power plants in the nation. Decisions were made to go forward with the plants when no permanent provision was ever worked out about how/where to store the spent fuel. Since the US has a prohibition on reprocessing of these wastes, they have to be put somewhere. Yucca Mountain in generally central Nevada was chosen, supposedly because of its geologic stability, and the plan was to dig huge caverns in the mountain that would keep the wastes safe in perpetuity. It is not clear just how long the stuff has to sit, and how many half-lives have to pass, until the waste material is no longer hazardous. Some estimate one hundred thousand years, an unimaginably long period. Opponents of the storage scheme say that we know too little to be sure that any spot on Earth is stable enough to hold entombed nuke plant wastes. People in Nevada, tired of a huge part of their state being given over to nuclear bomb tests and all sorts of other dangerous stuff, oppose Yucca Mountain. While the Bush administration was pushing ahead to open Yucca Mountain, the Obama administration has brought all that to a halt. At the present time, there is no alternative proposal for storage. SONGS may sit in a spot that makes it more vulnerable than most such plants to some sort of disturbance, but it is not at all unique.

July 17, 2013

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