SCE Files Motion to Dismiss Lawsuit Over Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage

ROSEMEAD, Calif., Sept. 20, 2019 — Southern California Edison today filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by an activist group in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego and an opposition to a request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction as part of the same lawsuit. The lawsuit focuses on spent nuclear fuel storage at the retired San Onofre nuclear plant.

Public Watchdogs filed its lawsuit Aug. 30 against SCE, San Onofre co-owner San Diego Gas & Electric and its parent company Sempra Energy, as well as dry storage system manufacturer Holtec International, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The lawsuit sought an immediate halt to fuel transfer operations at San Onofre through a temporary restraining order. The court did not rule on the restraining order and instead set a Sept. 20 deadline for filing additional legal briefs.

“This latest lawsuit by Public Watchdogs is wrong on the law and it’s wrong on the science and on the engineering of spent fuel storage,” said Doug Bauder, SCE vice president and chief nuclear officer. “We’re working to get the fuel safely into dry storage as a required step toward eventually shipping it to a federally approved repository. Public Watchdogs’ lawsuit is a barrier to achieving this goal. We want the fuel removed, which is consistent with what members of the community tell us they want.”

In July, Public Watchdogs withdrew a similar lawsuit, which also named SCE, after being given a chance to amend the complaint by the court.

SCE has placed 33 canisters of spent nuclear fuel into the Holtec UMAX dry storage system. Forty canisters remain to be stored. All canisters should be placed into the dry storage system by mid-2020.

Factual Errors in Public Watchdogs’ Lawsuit

  • The lawsuit claims the Aug. 3, 2018, canister lowering event “could have turned … much of Southern California into a permanently uninhabitable wasteland.” Detailed studies, reviewed and validated by a respected engineering firm and the NRC, showed that had the canister dropped 18 feet, there would not have been a radioactive release. This point is detailed in the NRC’s final special inspection report (July 9, 2019, p. 30). In fact, since 2015, no credible accident scenario exists in which radioactive material could leave the site boundary at San Onofre.
  • The lawsuit also misrepresents a canister placement on July 22, 2018. During the placement of that canister, the crew experienced some delays in aligning the canister properly before safely lowering it. The canister was always supported during this time. However, Public Watchdogs claims the canister “nearly dropped,” which would have “turned San Onofre State Beach Park into a permanently uninhabitable nuclear wasteland.” Here’s what the NRC said during its Nov. 8, 2018, webinar about the placement: “ … during that time, never was the MPC, or the canister, not suspended by the slings, every time they attempted to download, they caught the loss of load condition … ” and “ … So they (SCE) were always within procedure during this event … ” Further, as already stated and verified, a dropped canister would not result in any release of radioactivity.
  • The Public Watchdogs filing and subsequent correspondence reveals a misunderstanding about the dry storage systems in place at San Onofre. The lawsuit claims SCE is “… burying those canisters.” In fact, the Holtec storage module is an engineered concrete monolith with stainless steel vaults, and a seismic rating twice that of the (wet) spent fuel pool storage systems. A removable lid made of steel and concrete is placed on top of the vaults. After the court set the Sept. 20 date to submit filings, the attorney for Public Watchdogs took the unusual step of writing directly to SCE on Sept. 6 asking for a voluntary halt to fuel transfer operations. In the letter, attorney Eric Beste writes one reason for the halt is “that the technology does not presently exist to remove canisters that have already been buried.” During practice runs, SCE routinely placed a simulated canister into dry storage and then removed it. Demonstrating this capability is required prior to the NRC’s approval to move fuel into dry storage.
  • Another allegation in the lawsuit, that “there is an imminent danger that the canisters will fail” is not accurate. Similar dry storage canister systems are in use all over the U.S. and have been since 1986. Currently, nearly 3,000 canisters are in service in the U.S. — none have released radioactive material to the environment. The canisters in use at San Onofre have a design life of 60 years and a service life of potentially 100 years or more. Due to radioactive decay, fuel in dry storage is significantly less hazardous than fuel in a recently shutdown reactor, with no motive force within the canister to propel material into the environment.
  • Regarding the incidental contact that may occur during spent fuel canister lowering, Public Watchdogs calls it gouging, but then quotes the NRC regional administrator as saying the canisters experienced “a little bit of scuffing” and “a little bit of contact.” The lawsuit also claims the issue wasn’t thoroughly vetted. In fact, SCE performed a detailed visual assessment of eight stored canisters using a high-resolution borescope. The results were presented to the NRC, which independently verified the “scuffing” and “contact” did not affect the safety function of the canisters. (See the NRC’s final special inspection report , July 9, 2019, p. 34)

Media Contact: Liese Mosher, (626) 302-2255

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