Sunday, August 28, 2016

The dangers of (and potential solutions for) spent fuel at San Onofre

To: "Terry Sforza" <>

August 28, 2016

Ms Sforza,

Regarding your recent article (shown below) about spent fuel at San Onofre, I suggest you dig deeper into the reality of nuclear waste problems in America -- literally and figuratively. Maybe doing so would provide the proper warning to residents around Diablo Canyon, that 10 more years of making nuclear waste is going to be a big problem for them -- it could be those NEW canisters which crack and leak, maybe 100 (or 100,000) years from now when they STILL haven't moved "to a new zip code" as Tom Palmisano would put it. Maybe in as little as 17 years or less, not the 80 years EPRI estimates, because EPRI didn't look at all the available data.

There's no "zip code" in America where the waste would be safe, none where it's wanted, none were it's safe to transport it to. And Mr. Palmisano is even ignoring his own backyard (literally and figuratively) where the waste would be most likely to go -- Palo Verde. As part-owner of that still-making-waste nuclear power plant, it's within his power to at least push for the waste to go there -- much farther from population centers, much farther from earthquake and tsunami zones than it is right now... and go there now, and why not? Why doesn't he push for that?

Because then, Southern California Edison would still be in legal possession of the waste. Mr. Palmisano claimed in writing that the reason PVNPP isn't a good solution is because then SCE wouldn't have "control" of the waste, as if they don't trust APS (Arizona Public Service, a misnomer if ever there was one) to run a nuclear power plant and handle it's own associated waste pile -- which is, or will be, far larger than ours, since they continue to operate three nuclear power plants and, unlike SCE, were successful in replacing their steam generators for another couple of decades of nuclear waste-making.

But look around the country: Where do you think the waste will go? WIPP suffered an explosive release of kitty-litter-laden plutonium 2 1/2 years ago and hasn't been able to operate since, and would never have taken spent fuel waste anyway. No other waste location is anywhere near opening IN PART because the legal conditions of shipping the waste include SCE (and other NPPs) relinquishing legal responsibility for the waste they've made -- if Palmisano doesn't trust PVNPP to properly handle the storage of the waste (as he's stated), then he's sure not going to trust some operator that doesn't even run a nuclear power plant, is he? Of course not -- even though "proper management" is expected to consist of nothing more than having a guy with a pea-shooter walk around the waste canisters once or twice a day.

While they rust, in unseen places. (There's no way to inspect the canisters for developing leaks, and even if some portions of the outside COULD be inspected, the insides can't be, and the main pressure points underneath, which take the 200,000-pound weight, can't be, with any current technology.)

Meanwhile, Palmisano has thus far utterly ignored the very real prospect of neutralizing the Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 components of the waste, a process which is possible using high-energy lasers in the 10 to 15 MeV range, using a patent-pending process developed by Peter M. Livingston of Palos Verdes, California.

By destroying those two components of the waste in situ, three major problems with nuclear waste are solved: Most importantly, the waste is no longer a proliferation risk, meaning, it can no longer be made into nuclear bombs by terrorists, Trump, or any other fool.

Second, the long-term storage problem going out half a million years (caused mainly by the extremely toxic Plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,100 years) is largely solved, or rather reduced to "only" about 600 years, the life of the fission products in the waste (most fission products have half-lives of 30 years or less, meaning they would be practically completely decayed to stable isotopes within about six centuries (20 half-lives).

Our nation is barely 240 years old, and most of our infrastructure is already crumbling -- including the road and bridges on which the waste would need to be moved, but it can be neutralized right here at San Onofre.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the waste would no longer be a criticality risk. A criticality event can occur in spent fuel any time over the next umpteen millenniums because of the fissile isotopes -- U-235 and Pu-239. All you need for that to happen is something that places the spent fuel closer together, and the intrusion of water or some other neutron moderator: An airplane crash, deformation of the rods by ground movement, or tsunami, or other forces such as terrorist bombs. Even just having the fuel rods crumble and fall to the bottom of a dry cask through aging could gather enough fuel too close together, initiating a criticality event -- which is a large explosion, possible large enough to cause additional criticality events in other nearby spent fuel canisters. Adding water or some other moderator to a sufficient amount of deformed fuel would guarantee a catastrophic criticality event.

The spent fuel at San Onofre contains thousands of times more radioactivity than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs together released. A spent fuel fire, even without a criticality event, would be a disaster for southern California to the tune of tens of thousands of lives (mainly from cancer, which I can tell you from experience is nothing pleasant even if it doesn't kill you) and trillions of dollars. The wind blows inland here, across America, so it would be a national calamity the likes of which the world has never seen (even Chernoby and Fukushima together released (and are releasing) less radioactivity that could be released in a cascade of criticality events at San Onofre).

The "spent" nuclear fuel is not safe where it is, that's for sure. The need for thicker, stronger canisters IS what we need to be resolving right now, Mr. Palmisano is dead-wrong about that. "Moving forward" is beginning the process of fissile isotope neutralization. It's not looking for some sucker to take our waste, that era of mass-stupidity ended decades ago. Nobody wants the waste and they can get on the Internet to learn why it's not safe. Nobody is going to take it. Nobody is that stupid anymore. Not even Palo Verde will take our waste, even as they make their own massive quantities of nuclear waste. Diablo Canyon won't take it, even as they too continue to make their own waste through 2025 at least (the agreement to shut down then is not binding).

Tom Palmisano should stop looking past his own back yard for a solution. There are no cheap solutions, and the thin (1/2 inch to 5/8ths inch) canisters he is using are utterly inadequate for even short-term storage of the waste. 37 fuel assemblies in each one is far too many. (We were promised, when dry cask storage was first proposed for San Onofre about 15 years ago, only FOUR fuel assemblies in each canister, greatly reducing the risk of a criticality event and making the casks far easier to transport away from here if a place ever opened up. And we were promised 2-inch thick steel, not 5/8ths of an inch.)

The nuclear industry, if nothing else, is consistent in never living up to their assurances. They have utterly failed us in spent fuel management. It's time for the public to face the seriousness of this issue, because once the waste gets out -- and it will -- nothing can be done to prevent cancers and many other ailments throughout the world.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

OC Register article about spent fuel:


At San Onofre, spent nuclear fuel is getting special tomb

Aug. 27, 2016

Updated 10:18 p.m.
Wood squares mark the spots where containers of spent fuel will be encased in concrete at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The numbered cement walls in the foreground are also spent fuel.



• There are 3,855 spent fuel assemblies stored at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, from all three reactors that operated at the site over more than four decades.

• Two-thirds of those ­ 2,668 fuel assemblies ­ are cooling in the spent fuel pools.

• One-third ­ 1,187 assemblies ­ are housed in 50 above-ground dry casks.

SOURCE: Southern California Edison

• Edison will choose a general contractor to oversee San Onofre's $4.4 billion teardown this fall, probably in October. Three corporate teams are vying for that contract: Westinghouse/Bechtel, CB&I/Team Holtec/Black & Veatch, and Kiewit/Energy Solutions/AECOM.

• In addition to the $4.4 billion to permanently shutter San Onofre ­ which customers already have funded via their electric bills over the decades ­ there's the contentious matter of who'll pay the $4.7 billion in early-shutdown costs (largely to buy replacement power when premature tube wear in the new steam generators forced the reactors offline in 2012). Edison and consumer groups originally agreed that the overwhelming bulk of the premature-shutdown bill would be borne by ratepayers ($3.3 billion), while Edison's shareholders would shoulder the rest ($1.4 billion). That agreement was reopened in May after charges that Edison and state regulators had improper back-room talks about the deal. An administrative law judge is expected to make a recommendation on that soon.

More on decommissioning, and Edison's video explainers, at

Waves crash on the rocks below San Onofre's tsunami wall, but it's the only sound.

The pipes that roared when they sucked in 1.8 billion gallons of ocean water a day ­ pipes as wide as a Cadillac Coupe de Ville is long ­ are silent. The catch pools that once teemed with fish are still and dark. A cage for errant sea lions rests in a far corner, empty.

"They'd chase the fish in here," Jim Madigan said of the sea lions and the catch pools.

"We'd put them in the crates and take them to Laguna Beach to be checked out and returned to the ocean," added Madigan, who has worked at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in one capacity or another for 35 years.

"There was more than one repeat visitor."

Once, San Onofre was a marvel of modern engineering ­ splitting atoms to create heat, boiling water to spin turbines and creating electricity that fulfilled 18 percent of Southern California's demand. Now, it's a demolition project of mind-boggling proportions, overseen by a dozen government agencies.

It's expected to cost $4.4 billion, take 20 years and leave millions of pounds of spent nuclear fuel on the scenic bluff beside the blue Pacific until 2049 or so, because the federal government has dithered for generations on finding a permanent repository.

In this vacuum, contractors from Holtec International ­ one of only a handful of companies licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do dry-cask radiation storage in the U.S. ­ are at work. Construction of the controversial "concrete monolith" to protect San Onofre's stranded waste has begun, over the protests of critics who decry a "beachfront nuclear waste dump."


The reinforced concrete pad that will support the monolith is finished.

Last week, Holtec workers used cranes and trucks to maneuver the first of 75 giant tubes into place atop it. When those tubes are bolted in, concrete will be poured up to their necks, and they'll be topped off with a 24,000-pound steel-and-concrete lid. Earth will be piled around it so that it looks something like an underground bunker.

Southern California Edison, which operates the plant, would not share the Holtec contract or reveal its price tag, but San Onofre's owners have recovered more than $300 million from the federal government for its failure to dispose of nuclear waste, which is why dry-cask storage must be built in the first place. San Onofre's decommissioning plan sets aside $1.27 billion for future spent fuel management.

This is one of the first newly licensed Hi-Storm Umax dry-cask storage systems Holtec is building in the United States. Once it's complete ­ expected to be late next year ­ workers will begin the deliberate and delicate dance of removing all spent fuel from cooling pools beside each reactor.

The iconic twin domes you see from the highway and the beach don't reveal their enormity. They stand as tall as a 13-story building, and the adjacent pools holding their spent fuel are 25 feet wide, 60 feet long, about 40 to 50 feet deep and hold a half-million gallons of water.

When Southern California Edison begins removing the 2,668 fuel assemblies chilling there, bays to those enormous pools will open. Holtec storage canisters will be lowered in. Underwater, 37 spent fuel assemblies will be loaded into each canister and capped. The canister will be slipped into a "transfer cask," lifted from the pool and drained.

Then it will be loaded onto a truck, driven a few hundred yards to the Umax and lowered into one of those 75 tubes. The waste-filled canister will remain inside. The transfer cask will be removed. The tube will be capped.

This will be repeated more than 70 times, until all the fuel in the more vulnerable pools is entombed in more stable dry-cask storage. That's slated to be done by mid-2019.


The system will become something of a real-time experiment: Edison is partnering with the Electric Power Research Institute to develop inspection techniques to monitor the casks as they age. The casks' integrity over time, while holding hotter "high burn-up" fuel, is a major concern of critics.

"Burn-up" ­ i.e., the amount of uranium that undergoes fission ­ has increased over time, allowing utilities to suck more power out of nuclear fuel before replacing it, federal regulators say. It first came into wide use in America in the latter part of the last century, and how it will behave in short-term storage containers (which, pending changes in U.S. policy on nuclear cleanup, must be used for longer-term storage) remains a topic of debate.

Tom Palmisano, chief nuclear officer at Edison and vice president for decommissioning, leans over a picture on a computer screen.

The image is a cut-away of a storage cask, and inside the cask's ventilation ducts is a tiny, motorized camera. One version of the robot can attach to metal surfaces via magnets; another can attach to nonmetal surfaces via suction.

"The tooling to go inside and inspect these things is being developed ­ it's an industrywide effort," Palmisano said. "We've got visual inspection capability, and we're working on other quantifiable inspection capabilities."

But dry-cask technology is not new, he said. Nuclear power plants in the U.S. have used it since 1986, and an analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute found that it would take at least 80 years before a severe crack could form in a dry storage canister.

The Umax uses the most corrosion-resistant grade of stainless steel; its design exceeds California earthquake requirements, and it protects against hazards such as water, fire or tsunamis.

Critics cast skeptical eyes on those claims.

They don't disagree that dry storage is safer than the spent fuel pools, but activist Donna Gilmore says officials gloss over the potential for serious cracking ­ a bigger risk in a moist, salty, oceanfront environment such as San Onofre.

Once a crack starts, it would continue to grow through the wall of the canister, undetected, until it leaked radiation, Gilmore said.

Other countries use thicker-walled casks than those licensed in America, and she believes we should, too.


What everyone wants is to remove the ensconced "stranded waste" from San Onofre as soon as possible, and the only way that can happen is if the federal government takes action.

Palmisano said energy is best expended pushing that forward, not arguing over canisters.

On that front, he is cautiously optimistic.

In January, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a new push to create temporary nuclear waste storage sites in regions eager for the business, currently in West Texas and New Mexico. Several of those could be up and running while the prickly question of coming up with a permanent site is hashed out.

There could be a plan, and a place, for this waste within the next 10 years, Palmisano said ­ but that would require congressional action, which in turn would likely require much prodding from the public.

"We are frustrated and, frankly, outraged by the federal government's failure to perform," he said. "I have fuel I can ship today, and throughout the next 15 years. Give me a ZIP code and I'll get it there."


San Onofre's heavily protected control room was built in an airtight envelope so that nothing outside would affect the people running the reactors. It once glowed with a dizzying array of lights and screens and switches. Now, it's mostly dark.

The containment domes that protected the reactors are patched where holes were made to install enormous new ­ some say souped-up ­ steam generators that were the plant's undoing. Labyrinths of metal, seven stories high ­ which once pulsed as high-pressure pipes funneled steam heated to 1,000 degrees ­ are now cold.

Diablo Canyon, the state's only other nuclear plant, is slated to close in 2025. An era has come to an end in California.

"Whether you're for or against nuclear power, it's really a shame for investors and ratepayers and employees that this facility had to be shut down prematurely," Palmisano said.

"It was a very viable facility."

Contact the writer:

Contact information for Ace Hoffman:


Ace Hoffman
Author, The Code Killers:
An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
Free download:
Carlsbad, CA
Email: ace [at]


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