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NRC To Inspect San Onofre Nuclear Plant After Waste Canister Incident


The San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California was officially shut down back in 2013. But a plan to transfer the spent fuel into storage canisters on the site has run into problems. The efforts to store the waste have been put on hold after a near accident last month. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is sending an inspection team there this week to review what happened. Alison St. John of member station KPBS has the story.


ALISON ST JOHN, BYLINE: The waves break against a seawall here at San Onofre State Beach. Behind me, surfers skim the water. This is one of the top five most popular state parks in California with 2.5 million visitors a year. To my left, just on the other side of the seawall, lie rows and rows of concrete bunkers. Many of them are already full of high-level nuclear waste from the nuclear power plant that's been decommissioned.

MIKE AGUIRRE: It's a ticking time bomb. It's a sword of Damocles, and it's hanging over our head.

ST JOHN: In 2015, attorney Mike Aguirre filed suit against the California Coastal Commission for granting a permit to store the waste on-site right next to the Pacific Ocean.

AGUIRRE: There will be a major problem - incident - at San Onofre sometime. It may be in the short term. It may be in the long term.

ST JOHN: The nuclear power plant shut down six years ago after its operator, Southern California Edison, discovered a radioactive leak in new steam generators. With no permanent storage site for the nation's nuclear waste, Edison decided to store the highly radioactive spent fuel rods on-site in partially buried canisters embedded in concrete about 100 feet from the high-tide line.

AGUIRRE: San Onofre is a national problem if there's a major incident there because it will affect the economy of this whole region.

ST JOHN: Concern was heightened when this happened. At a recent community meeting, David Fritch, a safety inspector, stood up to speak.


DAVID FRITCH: I may not have a job tomorrow for what I'm about to say, but that's fine 'cause I made a promise to my daughter that if no one else talked about what happened, I would.

ST JOHN: Fritch described a near accident when a canister of radioactive spent fuel being transferred from a cooling pond got hung up as it was being lowered into a concrete vault.


FRITCH: There were gross errors on the part of two individuals that are inexplicable. So what we have is a canister that could have fallen 18 feet. That's a bad day. That happened. And you haven't heard about it. And that's not right.

ST JOHN: Edison's chief nuclear officer, Tom Palmisano, called it an industrial safety issue.


TOM PALMISANO: The canister itself is designed to withstand that, but that doesn't excuse it. So a serious near miss, if you will.

ST JOHN: With an NRC inspection pending, the loading process is now temporarily halted. But Palmisano says the company is committed to finish burying the waste, where he says it will remain until there's a better option.


PALMISANO: Our commitment is to support any reasonable and safe way to move fuel out of San Onofre whether it's a permanent repository or something not yet on the horizon.

ST JOHN: But Greg Jaczko says don't count on it.

GREG JACZKO: Realistically, they're not going to move them out.

ST JOHN: Jaczko headed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012 when San Onofre was shut down.

JACZKO: So those permits will be extended, the operational period will be extended repeatedly, and you will have a de facto burial site there.

ST JOHN: Jaczko is one of a growing number of voices raising the alarm about the decision to bury the spent fuel near the beach. An estimated 8 million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre. And of course there's earthquakes and the possibility that sea level rise could eventually reach the bottom of the canisters before they're moved. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will evaluate Edison's handling of the near miss accident and decide when the company can resume transferring the waste from cooling pools into the bunkers by the sea. For NPR News, I'm Alison St. John in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF MORA'S "FALLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.