A Microcosm of America’s Nuclear Waste Dilemma
The Saga of Santa Susana
On November 24, 1957, an experimental nuclear reactor at the Santa Susana Field Lab site just north of Los Angeles produced the electricity to briefly light up the nearby city of Moorpark – an historic first.
With national TV coverage by the famed Edward R. Morrow and CBS on its popular “See It Now” series, and with officials from the fledgling US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in attendance, the event was touted as proof of the promise of commercial nuclear power in the United States.
Just 8 months later, on July 13, 1959, that same reactor became the site of America’s first nuclear meltdown – by some estimates even worse than the subsequent meltdown at Three Mile Island. Six weeks later, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a press release citing a “minor fuel element failure.” Other than that, news coverage of the Santa Susana event was virtually non-existent for years. The ‘Friendly Atom’ psyops campaign was swinging into action.
In fact, massive amounts of radioactivity had been released into the surrounding local environment to be absorbed into flora and fauna – including neighboring human residents. Cancer clusters increased in the region, as far west as Malibu, over the succeeding decades – especially affecting children. The official cover-up set the playbook pattern for government and industry responses to all the nuclear accidents that have followed – especially including Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Fifty-nine years later, on Nov 13, 2018, the Woolsey Fire – one of the largest recorded fires in L.A. County history – burned large areas of the former Santa Susana Field Lab. The fire’s ignition point was eventually traced to the same original substation that had once helped light up Moorpark.
The Woolsey Fire swept the region, re-lofting radioactivity and toxic chemicals long sequestered in the surrounding vegetation and building structures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracked the resulting radioactive smoke cloud westward to the coast and then south and eastward across the country to as far away as New York.
Those linked events suggest that the expression ‘what goes around, comes around’ is the operative phrase for the Atomic Age.
The company in charge of operating the experimental Santa Susana reactor was Southern California Edison (SCE). Ironically, that happens to be the same company that has been in charge of operating the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California for the past three decades, and that is now in charge of decommissioning the plant’s two shutdown reactors and managing its tons of accumulated lethal nuclear waste.
Edison now characterizes itself as a ‘nuclear power pioneer,’ but its PR material does not mention its role at the Santa Susana disaster.
While in operation, the Edison facility at San Onofre – in the densely-populated region between Los Angeles and San Diego – maintained the dubious distinction of being not only the US nuclear plant with the highest number of employee reports of serious safety violations, but also the one with the worst record of retaliation against whistleblowing employees.
The San Onofre Syndrome
The plant is known by the happy-sounding acronym SONGS, for San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Years of informed citizen action succeeded in shutting down the leaking plant in 2013 – despite utility and government efforts to keep it going, even after it failed and leaked.
However, celebration by victorious activists living around SONGS was short-lived when they discovered that Southern California Edison – with official acquiescence by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); the California Land Commission; the California Coastal Commission; the California Public Utilities Commission; and the California Governor’s Office – was planning to bury tons of accumulated radioactive waste just above the beach, just yards from the surf.
The story gets worse. Activist research in NRC’s and the industry’s own sources as well as mainstream media reports, have raised serious, unanswered questions about the viability and safety of the so-called independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI – pronounced Is-fi-see) at San Onofre and its supplier, Holtec International – of which more below.
The bitter lessons learned by the disillusioned and concerned residents is that government and its so-called ‘regulatory’ agencies cannot be relied upon to protect you. They are captured by the very industries they were ostensibly created to regulate. Only what Eisenhower termed in his famed farewell speech, ‘informed citizen action,’ can do the job.
The issues now being debated at San Onofre epitomize in microcosm those now confronting the world at large. Once decided, they may well set a national, even global precedent – raising or lowering the bar for future waste management policy.
The root cause of the national radioactive waste dilemma is that, in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and its subsequent amended versions, the US Department of Energy (DOE) committed to the utilities to take possession of the nation’s commercial nuclear waste and transport it to a central geological repository. Despite decades and millions of dollars of trying, no geological repository has been established. The main candidate, the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, was terminated by the Obama Administration. Attempts to revive it have so far failed. Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) is now being touted as a ‘temporary’ solution. But the first CIS to be established may well become the only de facto national dumpsite for all the waste from all the country’s shutdown reactors.
The only alternative is to store it on-site at all the reactors where it has been produced for the indefinite future. That’s the San Onofre Syndrome.
A complex set of issues define the emblematic San Onofre debate. Two of those issues loom largest in the minds of informed local residents: the characteristics of the containment structures in which the tons of waste will be stored; and the character of the company that is supplying and loading them.
Holtec International is the contractor for Southern California Edison’s contested seaside ISFSI at San Onofre.
The Holtec canisters are made of five-eighths inch thick stainless steel welded shut with 37 bundles of thermally hot and highly radioactive hi-burnup, so-called ‘spent’ fuel rods inside. Unprotected exposure at three feet would cause death within minutes. They are being lowered into steel-lined cavities or silos in a concrete pad in an earthquake and tsunami zone, just above a popular surfing beach 100 feet from the rising sea. A 2019 Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) Report to the Congress and the Energy Department titled “Preparing for Nuclear Waste Transportation” found that “stainless steel and closure welds can make the canister susceptible to chloride-induced stress corrosion cracking,” a risk intensified in San Onofre’s salty sea air environment.
A local engineer calculated – using industry numbers – the amount of radioactive material in Holtec canister at SONGS, and compared those levels to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. He estimates that after the fuel has been ‘cooled’ for 5-years, each loaded Holtec canister at San Onofre will contain:
- Approximately 35 times as much Plutonium as released at Chernobyl,
- Approximately the same amount of Cesium-137 as released at Chernobyl,
- Approximately 6 times as much Strontium-90 as released at Chernobyl.
On the basis of those calculations, critics have dubbed the Holtec canisters “Chernobyl Cans” and warn that an accident that released the contents of just one canister could render the entire region around San Onofre uninhabitable. Edison’s public relations department poo-poos the claim.
But critics point out that dry cask systems in other countries like Germany, Japan and Switzerland are up to 19 inches thick, able to be monitored for leaks, and are fastened with bolts so that they can be opened, and the fuel repackaged in the case of problems. In contrast, the Holtec canisters in use at SONGS and other reactor sites around the country, are thin, welded shut, un-inspectible, and, according to a video statement by Holtec’s President Singh himself, un-repairable if damaged.
Boasting on its website of contracts not only across the US, but, “at over 115 reactor units around the globe,” in places as far-flung as “Brazil, Dubai, India, South Africa, Spain, U.K. and Ukraine,” Holtec rebuffs all criticism and continues to pursue its quest to dominate the burgeoning radioactive waste management and decommissioning industry.
Scandal-Plagued Companies and the Coming Decommissioning Gold Rush
Trouble is, recent revelations are raising serious questions about the company’s corporate character and manufacturing competence. With alleged scandals of its own in Tennessee and New Jersey making the news lately, Holtec has also recently partnered with the giant Canadian firm SNC-Lavalin with a plan to buy up and decommission US nuclear plants as they are shut down.
In Canada, SNC-Lavalin has just been ordered by the court to pay a $280M penalty over 5 years and be placed on probation in connection with a bribery and money- laundering scheme in Libya.
Decommissioning shuttered nuclear power plants and managing their waste is on pace to become a profit-rich, multi-billion dollar business as the coming cascade of US reactor shutdowns gets rolling. Holtec and its chief competitor, the New York-based NorthStar Group Services have their eyes on the prize of billions of dollars in decommissioning trust funds accumulated at each reactor site over the years from federally mandated ratepayer charges.
The business model appears to be to complete the decom process under budget and ahead of schedule and claim what’s left over in those trust funds – which by rights, should go back to the ratepayers. Critics fear that the incentives built into this fast-and-cheap business model is a sure recipe for disaster.
The Holtec/SNC-Lavalin target list for buying and decommissioning shut down nuclear facilities includes Massachusetts’ Pilgrim, New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, Michigan’s Palisades, and New York’s Indian Point. Serious concerns and opposition are being raised. A recent report on Indian Point notes that “each project is structured as an independent corporation, shielding the two firms from financial liability if anything goes wrong.”
In Massachusetts, Senators Markey and Warren and Rep. Keating are publically criticizing an NRC decision to ignore state and local concerns and move ahead with the transfer of ownership of the Pilgrim nuclear plant from Entergy to Holtec/SNC-Lavalin. In September, the lawmakers wrote to the NRC urging it to reject Entergy and Holtec’s request for the plant to be exempted from critical safety regulations. The NRC approved Pilgrim’s exemption despite elected officials’ and the public’s concerns.
“Once again federal regulators have bypassed the concerns of Southeastern Massachusetts and allowed the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station to change hands,” said Senator Warren. “This is a punch in the gut to the people who live, work, and go to school in the area and who have rightly raised safety concerns – and should be heard.”
In New York, the organization Riverkeepers, which was instrumental in getting Indian Point shut down, reports that it is “fighting to stop Entergy from transferring Indian Point’s ownership – and the $2 billion decommissioning trust fund – to Holtec, a company with a scandalous corporate past, little experience in decommissioning nuclear power plants and dubious experience in their core business, spent fuel management. Holtec’s culture of prioritizing its own profits over the law throws into doubt its willingness to decommission the site properly and prudently manage $2 billion of the public’s funds.”
In August of 2018, in a meeting of the SONGS Citizen Engagement Panel (CEP), a whistleblower stepped forward to reveal that, despite Edison’s failure to report it that night, one of the 50 ton canisters had nearly been dropped 18 feet during loading into a silo in the ISFSI. “I may not have a job tomorrow,” he began, “but I promised my daughter that if they didn’t say anything, I would…. That happened. It was a very bad day.”
His revelation led to the discovery that the stainless steel canisters are being scratched and gouged by contact with a carbon steel guide ring as they’re being lowered into the ISFSI silos. That contact sets off a chemical reaction that increases and speeds through-wall cracking and degradation of the canister walls. The original Holtec contract had claimed that no scratches would occur.
Loading was halted for several months while the NRC investigated.
Its conclusion was that scratching and gouging is really OK. The original contract was retroactively revised and the loading of the canisters resumed, slated to be complete in mid 2020. This, despite the NWTRB 2019 Report, cited above, stating that scrapes can contribute to corrosion leading to through-wall cracking that may prevent transport. Repackaging for transport would require construction on each reactor site of a massive 1-to-2 billion dollar ‘hot cell’ facility.
Put it Here, or Put it There? We Don’t Want it Anywhere!
In response to growing public pressure to ‘Just get it outa here!,’ Edison is giving assurances that it will move the waste to another location as soon as one is found. Its favored candidate at the moment also involves the ubiquitous Holtec.
In one of its key projects, Holtec is the applicant for an NRC license to construct a much-contested CIS (Consolidated Interim Storage) site near Hobbs, New Mexico in partnership with a local consortium of local profit-seekers calling itself the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance.
Return to Ground Zero – New Mexico, “Land of Radioactive Dis-Enchantment”
The proposed Holtec/Eddy-Lea site is in south-east New Mexico, where the lower right corner of the state meets the north west Texas ‘pan handle’ on a map of the southwest.
The region is known to local residents as ‘Nuclear Alley.’ That’s because it is already home to the URENCO nuclear reprocessing facility outside Eunice, N.M.; the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., and a low-level nuclear waste dump just across the border in Texas, run by Interim Storage Partners/Waste Control Specialists (ISP/WCS) – which, in competition with Holtec – is seeking NRC approval for a high-level CIS site of its own. The Eddy-Lea spokesperson claims the people of the region have ‘a very high nuclear IQ’ and want the dumpsite. The region’s many opponents of the proposed site agree that they have a ‘high nuclear IQ,’ and that’s why they emphatically don’t want it.
The greater irony – raising the gnarly issue of environmental racism, even genocide – is that New Mexico was ground zero for the infamous Trinity Test in 1945 that began the Atomic Age.
In his recent book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, arch-whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg revealed that the Manhattan Project’s nuclear physicists chose to gamble with the possibility that the Trinity nuclear bomb test could have ignited the atmosphere and ocean and extinguished life on earth.
Instead, the detonation directly impacted some 15,000 regional residents within a 50 mile radius – mostly indigenous – who were not warned of the test, and became history’s first unwitting, involuntary ‘down-winders.’ It began a global pattern impacting indigenous populations around the world, which has come to be known as nuclear colonialism, or radioactive racism.
According to the Arms Control Association,
“Since the first nuclear test explosion on July 16, 1945, at least eight nations have detonated 2,056 nuclear test explosions at dozens of test sites from Lop Nor in China, to the atolls of the Pacific, to Nevada, to Algeria where France conducted its first nuclear device, to western Australia where the U.K. exploded nuclear weapons, the South Atlantic, to Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, across Russia, and elsewhere. Most of the test sites are in the lands of indigenous peoples and far from the capitals of the testing governments.”
Additionally, because New Mexico has the bad luck to have copious uranium deposits, the state and its largely Dine’/Navajo indigenous population became a main source of America’s uranium supply for its subsequent extensive atmospheric and underground nuclear bomb testing.
Work in the uranium mines became a mainstay of the local Navajo economy. Although no uranium ore has been mined in New Mexico since 1998, an estimated 500 mines, tailing piles and holding ponds still litter the New Mexico landscape. Three of them are designated superfund sites and are the source of contamination for tens of millions of gallons of groundwater and countless acres, most of which is on Navajo land.
On July 16, 1979, a United Nuclear Corporation tailings disposal pond at its uranium mill at Church Rock, New Mexico breached its dam. The effects of the radioactive mill tailings were far reaching with radiation from thorium- 230 and uranium spreading 80 plus kilometers down the Puerco River in New Mexico. The Church Rock spill remains the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, having released more radioactivity than the Three Mile Island accident four months earlier.
According to documented sources, “Because roughly half of the Navajo population in the area get their water from unregulated sources, which became contaminated, they suffered from exposure to high levels of poisonous uranium mill tailings in the water supply. This resulted in elevated rates of kidney disease as well as [in] the affected Navajo population being 1.83 times more likely to have 1 of 33 selected defects.”
That tragic history is a large part of why thousands of opponents to the proposed Holtec/Eddy-Lea CIS site in New Mexico – from the Tribal and Hispanic populations, to public officials, from ranchers to fracking companies – are saying loud and clear, “We Don’t Want It.” They know that once just one CIS site is opened, it may well become the de facto single repository for the entire estimated more than 80,000 metric tons of commercial nuclear waste from all the nation’s power reactors.
Further complicating matters, there is the knotty question of whether or not the Holtec canisters can – on technical and legal grounds – actually ever be moved at all.
According to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Standard Contract for Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and/or High-Level Radioactive Waste (Standard Contract) (10 CFR Part 961) “DOE does not consider spent nuclear fuel in multi-assembly canisters to be an acceptable waste form, absent a mutually agreed to contract amendment.”
The NWTRB Report states that canisters holding 37 spent fuel assemblies – like those at SONGS – are so radioactively and thermally hot that “if no repackaging occurs, some of the largest SNF canisters storing the hottest SNF would not be cool enough to meet the transportation requirements until approximately 2100”
At a recent SONGS Citizen Engagement Panel meeting, one of the panelists asked a visiting senior staffer from the NWTRB, “if the canisters that we have now are compliant and could be moved if a site opens up? That’s a yes or a no.” After a pregnant pause, the official responded, “I don’t know.”
Nationally, E&E News reports that the push for consolidated interim storage (CIS) has stalled in the Congress this year for lack of appropriations. Lawmakers apparently fear that CIS will steal funding from development of a centralized permanent geological repository.
The Age of Nuclear Waste Begins
As what Canadian commentator Gordon Edwards has dubbed ‘the Age of Nuclear Waste’ gets underway, San Onofre is both unique and symptomatic.
Former California Congressman Darrell Issa once pointed out in a Congressional hearing that its hard to imagine a less appropriate place for a radioactive dump than San Onofre – in a densely populated, economically, agriculturally and militarily strategic region in an earthquake and tsunami zone, yards from a rising sea.
Yet, the technical deficiencies, institutional dynamics, power relationships, media confusion and dysfunctional decision-making processes involved at San Onofre are essentially typical and endemic to all reactor community situations.
With more than half of San Onofre waste already in dry storage, and loading of the Holtec ISFSI due to be completed in mid-2020, former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s prediction is looking more and more accurate by the day. “Once those canisters are in the ground,” he said, “they won’t be going anywhere any time soon.”
As recognition of that hard likelihood spreads, more people are beginning to ask, “If the waste is basically here to stay, shouldn’t it be housed in the most robust, state-of-the-art containment structures currently available?”
Many are concluding that the Holtec seaside canister system clearly doesn’t fill that bill. They fear that a fait accompli at San Onofre will set a dangerously low bar and tragic precedent for on-site waste containment practice in the US. They are demanding that Edison stop its headlong rush to continue loading these 37 fuel assembly canisters and reconsider.
So far, these citizen concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Southern California citizens are on the front line of a challenge facing us all: can we find an environmentally just way to lose the San Onofre Blues?
James Heddle co-directs EON, the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan, who contributed to this article. EON is producing the forthcoming feature-length documentary SHUTDOWN on the San Onofre story.