Food and Technology Blog

The lethal legacy of nuclear waste at San Onofre

Posted Jun. 27, 2013 / Posted by: Adam Russell

Friends of the Earth: Edison must quickly move spent reactor fuel from pools to dry casks

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The legacy of 44 years of operating the San Onofre reactors is a nuclear waste dump containing one of the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States, says a new study from Friends of the Earth, which warns that the spent fuel on site poses a major radiological hazard in the event of an accident. The report urges Southern California Edison to as soon as possible move hundreds of thousands of spent fuel rods from cooling pools to much safer dry-cask storage. 

Nearly 1,100 tons of the highly radioactive spent fuel rods, discharged from the reactor cores, remain in vulnerable water filled cooling pools. The amount of radioactivity in the spent fuel rods now stored in the cooling pools is nearly three times more than is stored in the high-level radioactive waste tanks at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford site in Washington, considered the most contaminated site in the nation. 

The report is by Robert Alvarez, former senior advisor to the Secretary at the Department of Energy and an expert on the growing volume of waste piling up at reactors across the nation. It details the vulnerability of cooling pools, which could accidentally drain, leading to the release of millions of curies of radioactivity. The report says Edison should move as quickly as possible to transfer the spent fuel from the cooling pools to dry-cask storage. Dry casks, while not risk-free, reduce the risk of major release of radioactivity into the environment. Most of the fuel in the San Onofre pools could be moved to cask storage within 5-7 years.

“The major risk from the reactors at San Onofre is over, but the radiation hazard from the pool-stored waste is even greater," said Alvarez. "As we saw at Fukushima, spent fuel in pools that were never designed for such concentrated and prolonged storage is highly vulnerable. Within six hours of losing water in the pools, more radioactive cesium could be released than was released in all nuclear weapons tests. The radiation dose to the thousands living within ten miles of the plant would be in the lethal range."

Nuclear waste from spent fuel has been generated by all of the nation's commercial nuclear reactors, with an estimated 70,000 tons currently in vulnerable pools and dry casks. The nuclear industry is currently lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would establish regional storage facilities for spent fuel at Department of Energy sites, such as the Savannah River site in South Carolina, as well as in New Mexico and Idaho. Legislation is expected to be introduced shortly that would attempt to push through such proposals with no opportunity for local public citizen involvement. Friends of the Earth, along with other national and local organizations, is opposed to such legislation as it would not solve the waste problem but would lead to greater risks from nuclear transports and would be the effective dumping of waste on already highly contaminated sites.

“San Onofre is a clear example of what happens when the nuclear industry is allowed to ignore the waste problem," said Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "The industry has created a highly dangerous situation for tens of millions of people not just in Southern California but across the nation. Proposals to move this waste around the country are an industry-driven scam to create the illusion that they've found a solution. There is no risk-free solution, but the best available option is for Edison and the rest of the nuclear industry to move as rapidly as possible to cask storage on the reactor site.” 

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Contact:
Shaun Burnie, (202) 701-6962, sburnie@foe.org
Bill Walker, (510) 759-9911

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