Solana Beach City Council Resolution on Spent Nuclear Fuel Contains Multiple Errors

The Solana Beach City Council passed a resolution June 12, on a 4-1 vote, containing multiple errors regarding federal regulations for nuclear energy sites, basic nuclear science and technical details for spent nuclear fuel storage. The resolution focused on spent nuclear fuel stored at the San Onofre nuclear plant. Now we learn the council may be revisiting the resolution, but not to make it more factual.

The resolution background prepared by city manager Gregory Wade acknowledges that “members of the community have voiced concerns” about spent nuclear fuel stored at San Onofre. We completely understand that. There has been an unhealthy amount of misinformation disseminated about spent nuclear fuel and we have tried our best to help the public, elected officials and the news media sort out the fact (see here and here) from fiction.

However, the council’s answer to those concerns was not to address them with facts, and truly help folks understand the current situation, but to exacerbate any concerns with misinformation from an anti-nuclear activist organization. We know of no attempt to contact Southern California Edison for information about spent fuel storage at San Onofre, or to support the technical discussion surrounding spent fuel storage containers. We could have helped.

ISFSI Holtec
View of the Holtec UMAX dry storage facility at SONGS.

One of the most egregious errors in the resolution is a claim that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a “50-mile emergency evacuation zone.” Until June 2015, San Onofre maintained a 10-mile emergency planning zone (EPZ) in which protective actions may have included evacuation. However, because only spent fuel remains on site, the NRC no longer requires an EPZ. The NRC has said there is no credible accident scenario in which radiological material would leave the site boundary, much less travel 50 miles.

“The ’50-mile radius’ talking point has been used by some elected officials, anti-nuclear activists, and some news media, along with faulty comparisons to Fukushima and Chernobyl,” said Ron Pontes, environmental decommissioning manager at San Onofre. “There simply isn’t any truth to it, especially now that we are only talking about spent nuclear fuel.”

In fact, it was used recently by the editorial board of the Lompoc Record.

Origin of “50 miles”

Following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, then NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko urged Americans in a 50-mile radius of the crippled plants to evacuate because, he said, one of the plant’s spent fuel pools had been drained dry, posing a potential health threat. At the time Japanese officials disputed the claim that a pool had emptied, according to the Washington Post. Subsequent studies confirmed none of the Fukushima pools ever lost enough water to expose spent fuel assemblies to air. Jaczko is a co-chair of Rep. Mike Levin’s (CA-49) San Onofre-focused task force.

The NRC notes on its website there has been only one nuclear emergency at a U.S. commercial nuclear plant that resulted in an evacuation of the public, the accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 in Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979, during which evacuation was recommended only for certain people within a 5-mile radius.

The Solana Beach resolution was supported at the council meeting, and in related correspondence to the city, by Torgen Johnson, an associate of the Del Mar, Calif. based Samuel Lawrence Foundation, and a member of Rep. Levin’s nuclear task force. Some of the documents sent to the council originated on a website run by another member of Rep. Levin’s task force and contain numerous errors. For instance, the information provided to the city included documents misrepresenting statements by an NRC staff member; misstating the timing of potential corrosion development involving a spent fuel canister at San Onofre; and wrongly claiming that spent fuel canisters in the U.S. haven’t been inspected. In fact, eight canisters at San Onofre were recently inspected and inspections have been successfully completed at multiple dry fuel storage sites across the country.

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Graphic used by Samuel Lawrence Foundation at nuclear waste conference to signify tsunami risk in Southern California.

The Samuel Lawrence Foundation released two reports related to San Onofre in January, one claiming an accident at the plant would result in $13 trillion in economic losses over 50 years. The NRC strongly disputed that claim, as have other experts. The basis for the report was a “Fukushima-like” catastrophe happening at San Onofre, which is impossible since the plant is shut down. A third report by the Foundation submitted to a nuclear waste organization was rejected recently following a peer-review by third-party experts. One of the slides presented at the conference by the Foundation's Subrata Chakraborty (of UCSD and a member of Rep. Levin's task force) on tsunami risk featured the photo at right, presumably signifying the tsunami threat for South Orange and North San Diego counties?

The Resolution

Some of the significant errors (or omissions of context) included in the Solana Beach resolution are identified below:

“8.5 million people living within a 50-mile emergency evacuation zone as defined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)…” – The NRC does not have such an evacuation zone in place for any operating U.S. nuclear plant, much less one that is in decommissioning status.

“…thin-walled waste canisters are subject to gouging, leading to corrosion, cracking and the possible release of radiation into the environment…” – The spent fuel canisters in use at San Onofre are thicker than most used in the industry, which are 1/2 inch compared to the 5/8 inch canister used at San Onofre. Recent canister inspections, independently verified by the NRC, found that the canisters maintain their full safety function even with the incidental contact that occurs during downloading.

It should be noted, in a recent response to Rep. Levin task force member Donna Gilmore, the NRC corrected Gilmore’s claim that through-wall canister cracking could occur in 16 years, writing that in a coastal environment, such as where San Onofre is located, through-wall cracking, if it were to occur, would take approximately 80 years.

In his comments to city council members June 12, Torgen Johnson said bolted-lid casks aren’t susceptible to corrosion. The ductile cast iron casks are, in fact, susceptible to corrosion and require a protective coating that must be maintained for the life of the canister, which in turn results in additional employee radiation exposure. These casks are also not accepted by the NRC for transportation. If Johnson is concerned about the spent fuel staying at San Onofre for the long-term, storing fuel in casks that aren't transportable is one way to assure it. We'd rather see all the spent fuel moved off-site, as soon as possible.

“…the storage facility is vulnerable to … sea-level rise, which could inundate the vault with corrosive sea water…” – The bottom of the new Holtec UMAX spent fuel storage facility sits three feet above the water table. For sea water to reach a spent fuel canister, it would need to rise three feet, then penetrate three feet of reinforced concrete and a 3/4 inch stainless steel cavity enclosure container that houses the canister. For reference, Units 2 and 3 at San Onofre were built below the water table and operated for nearly 30 years with no impact from the water table or sea water. This sea water intrusion claim by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation is not supported by any data or engineering analysis we have seen. SCE has committed to revisiting sea-level rise in relation to the Holtec facility in 2035.

“…a breach of even one of San Onofre's nuclear waste storage canisters could disable the busiest transportation corridor on the West Coast, destroy real estate, significantly impact U.S. agricultural supplies, disrupt major international cargo shipment imports and exports, cripple military readiness at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and prompt extensive economic damages…” – A breach of a canister, such as crack, at San Onofre would do none of this. There is no motive force in a spent nuclear fuel canister that would propel contamination out of the canister. A canister breach, an astonishingly low probability event (it’s never happened to a welded lid canister), would slightly increase the already low radiation dose rate in the immediate vicinity of the storage facility. In fact, when canisters are being loaded they are covered by just 23 feet of water and that provides all the shielding necessary to keep employees safe. A hypothetical breached canister at San Onofre would still have the robust shielding provided by the stainless steel and concrete surrounding it, limiting any consequence to employees or the public.

The consequence of a breached used fuel storage canister has been evaluated by tests performed by the Department of Energy and by extensive NRC approved analyses of accidents involving leaking canisters. These tests and analyses conclude that a breached canister will not result in radiological exposure.

That's one reason in 2015 the two highest emergency levels at San Onofre went away, the ones that could lead to sheltering-in-place or evacuation. In other words, the ones that have off-site consequences, such as those wrongly contemplated by the Solana Beach resolution.

“...radiation exposure poses potentially lethal health effects to life on Earth…” – This statement is so general its only purpose can be to create fear. The people of Solana Beach are exposed to radiation at the beach (from the sun), swimming in the ocean (from naturally occuring uranium), from granite countertops, from eating potato chips and bananas, not to mention from medical procedures, including those performed at facilities such as Scripps, to treat cancer. As a source of radiation exposure to the general population, nuclear energy facilities are negligible contributors. Spent nuclear fuel storage facilities are even less than negligible.

Other Communities Targeted

We saw on social media that the City of Carlsbad may be considering a similar resolution. Our hope is they, and other city councils and official deliberative bodies, will consult real experts on this important issue so their communities are served by fact-based discussions, unlike what the people of Solana Beach received. And we hope that these discussions take place in venues open to the public.

The Solana Beach City Council members are, no doubt, sincere in their effort to ensure their community is safe. However, that effort should not be undertaken at the expense of facts and the truth regarding spent nuclear fuel. The city council will now (according to the resolution) forward these misrepresentations to the state legislature and the governor. How does that serve the people of Solana Beach or the people of California?

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