Sunday, February 12, 2017

Darrell Issa's New Nuclear Waste Policy Act (H. R. 474) is a disaster for taxpayers, but would be Nirvana for nuclear utilities

U.S. Representative Darrell Issa -- my Congressman -- wants to screw the American public by forcing them (us) to take all the nuclear waste the nuclear industry has ever produced -- with no safe place to put it.

Meanwhile, local residents of the closed San Onofre Nuclear (Waste) Generating Station have renamed the spent fuel there as the "Darrell Issa Nuclear Waste Dump" because of his support for the plant while it was open, and his (failed) attempts to have it reopen after the plant was shut down permanently on January 31, 2012 due to faulty steam generators. And there the waste sits in enormous, thin-walled, so-called "stainless" steel casks. Now, Darrell Issa is playing on the fears of local residents who want the waste moved away from the coast in order to push his proposal.

Issa's proposed changes to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (which was enough of a screwing of the American public in itself) will, in the long run, probably cost taxpayers trillions -- yes, trillions -- of dollars, and result in millions -- yes, millions -- of deaths over the coming centuries. These deaths are nearly inevitable, because his bill guarantees new nuclear waste will be made ad nauseam, and that means the waste will almost surely be released into the environment eventually. No one has ever built a containment that will last longer than the nuclear waste. Not even the Egyptian pharaohs.

The first paragraph of Issa's detestable bill says it all: He wants the U.S. Government -- that's actually us, the citizens of the United States, since we're a "government of the people" -- to "take title to certain high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel." That means the federal government would be responsible for all of the most nasty property any private company has ever held title to (known in the industry as "Greater than Class C" nuclear waste).

And Issa wants to take money away from the Nuclear Waste Fund -- which was set up to create a permanent geologic repository somewhere in America -- to bribe local officials at interim storage sites and enrich sleazy corporations that want to build large, open, cement pads to hold thousands of school-bus-sized, thin-walled canisters, each containing enough nuclear waste to devastate an entire state.

Currently, this waste -- about 80,000 tons altogether -- is being stored on site at more than 70 active and former nuclear power stations. And currently, more nuclear waste is being generated at nearly 100 nuclear power plants around the country -- about 10 tons of new nuclear waste per day in America (about 50 tons globally, per day).

Nuclear waste contains short-lived and long-lived "fission" isotopes. Most fission products -- the result of splitting fissile atoms such as Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 -- have half-lives of less than about 30 years, so they'll require about 600 years to fully decay (20 half-lives leaves about one millionth of the original amount). (A few fission isotopes will take millions of years to decay to stable elements.)

Nuclear waste also contains unburned "fissile" material: Unsplit Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 atoms. These are present because the fuel was removed when it was no longer profitable to the utility to continue using it -- the yield had dropped too much, and not because all the fissile isotopes had been split.

These fissile isotopes can be used by a rogue government headed by a rogue leader to make nuclear weapons. They can be stolen by terrorists (not easy, but not impossible). Perhaps worst of all the fissile isotopes can still achieve criticality.

A criticality event can occur when the fissile materials accumulate together too closely. There are various shields and other separators within the storage casks that keep the material sufficiently far apart to prevent this from happening under "normal" circumstances. But if things go wrong, a VERY large explosion occurs, tremendous heat is produced almost instantaneously, and radioactive material is spread throughout the planet. Worst of all, one criticality event in one dry cask is liable to spread to other casks, because the casks, in the current proposed configurations, will be stored very close together with no barriers in-between each cask.

Proposed interim storage configurations that have been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval comprise simply an enormous rectangular cement pad covered from one end to another with dry casks [see below for a clarification]. This type of configuration is a perfect target for a hijacked airplane: Large, easy to locate, and not surrounded by anything that would prevent an airplane from striking it (no anti-aircraft guns, no roof, no walls, nothing).

It's the cheapest possible "solution" to the nuclear waste problem America has been unable to solve for more than half a century -- despite putting tens of thousands of scientists on the task, who got nowhere. Those scientists could not get a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain approved because there are still hundreds of unsolved technical problems. At the time Yucca Mountain was cancelled, California alone had submitted dozens of technical issues that needed to be dealt with, and Nevada had submitted nearly 300 more. It is inaccurate to think that Yucca Mountain was stopped because of "political" pressure from Nevada. Yucca Mountain was stopped because of volcanic concerns, water seepage problems, cave-ins, climate change issues, earthquakes possibilities, and many problems with the containers themselves.

The nuclear industry is pushing Issa's "Interim Storage" solution because it completely solves THEIR problem: Ownership of the waste. A single "small" accident with that waste would bankrupt even the largest nuclear utility. But by giving the "ownership" of the spent fuel and other high-level waste to the taxpayers and citizens of America, the utilities can "wash their hands" of the problem they created.

They could have closed their nuclear plants down decades ago and switched to renewables but they didn't, in part because of the 1982 NWPA, which promised to take the waste off their hands when a permanent repository opened a few years later. That never happened, and so the utilities have successfully sued the federal government to recover hundreds of millions of dollars each that they have been spending to store nuclear waste on site.

As dozens of reactors are sure to close or have already recently shut down permanently, due to aging concerns or other problems (including the cheaper cost of renewables and natural gas), the nuclear waste fund is no longer increasing as much as it was previously, and the only way it will have enough money for a permanent repository is if the interest on the money already in the fund is allowed to accumulate (and even that will probably not be enough).

But Darrell Issa wants to rob the fund of the interest in order to pay for the interim storage! In other words, he won't even charge the utilities for this massive criminal enterprise! And he specifically intends to let the utilities continue to sue for the cost of continuing to store the waste on site in the meantime.

Issa's concept is currently illegal, hence the need for his new bill. He tried for several years to get similar bills passed with no success. His current proposal is called the "Interim Consolidated Storage Act of 2017" and he has 17 co-sponsors, including several Representatives from Texas, where the interim storage site will probably be located if it is ever built.

The politicians smell money coming into their state, and couldn't care less if the project destroys their state when an accident occurs, as it inevitably will. The waste canisters cannot be inspected on the inside. The ceramic fuel pellets -- hundreds of thousands of finger-bone sized pellets in each canister -- are already degraded from years of heat, vibration, radiation, and migration of fission products through the fuel. (The fission products are created when the fissile atoms are split in the reactor during operation. The fission products -- on average two for every atom that is split -- then migrate through the fuel towards the outer edges of the pellets, which tends to cause microscopic cracks in the fuel pellets, and the pellets expand, which puts pressure on the (flammable) zirconium fuel rods that contain them. There are thousands of fuel rods in each dry cask, packed into dozens of "assemblies" of several hundred fuel rods each.)

A couple of private security guards with pea shooters (side-arms, aka pistols) will guard the fences of this enormous target, and a couple of times a month a technician will walk around the canisters to "inspect" them -- but won't be able to see what's going on inside, where the fuel rods may be crumbling and the fuel collecting at the bottom of the canister -- risking a sudden explosive criticality event. The possibility of a criticality event exists even without an airplane strike. However, if an airplane did strike the pad, chances of a criticality event are very significant. The force of the impact could push the fuel together, and an airplane strike could also cause a fire which would destroy the containers within about 20 minutes. Either way, a criticality event becomes almost inevitable after an airplane strike.

Issa's bill specifically rejects the intent of the 1982 Act by stating that "nothing" in his bill will "require the disposal of Greater than Class C waste in a repository." In other words, the "Interim" storage site could become the "permanent" repository for many centuries! However, unless the Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 isotopes are neutralized (which can be done through the use of lasers), nuclear waste will remain in danger of a criticality event for millions of years. And no utility wants to invest in neutralization, mainly because destroying the U-235 and Pu-239 would eliminate the possibility of reprocessing the fuel -- but that's actually another huge advantage of laser neutralization!

Issa's bill is so generous to the nuclear industry, they don't even have to sign a contract with anyone -- the liability for the waste will be automatically transferred to the federal government as soon as the waste is transferred to the interim storage site -- which will be run by a company that isn't liable for it at all!

This certainly isn't capitalism; it's worse than communism! It's madness!

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

URL for Darrell Issa's reprehensible bill:

Link to Dr. Peter M. Livingston's patent application for laser neutralization of nuclear waste: (goes to the USPTO).

Dr. Livingston's patent was initially rejected, however on appeal, in November, 2016 most of his claims were reinstated, a huge and unusual victory, and additionally, the most important rejected portions were not rejected for being wrong, but for being already proven correct (or, in the first rejected item, because the patent officer illogically asserts that a beam of light from a flashlight is "collimated" like a beam of light from a laser, which is "patently" absurd):


Correction to yesterday's newsletter: Darrell Issa's New Nuclear Waste Policy Act (H. R. 474)

February 13, 2017

Dear Readers,

In my newsletter yesterday, I erred in implying that there will be no concrete overpack for the thin (1/2 inch to 5/8ths inch) stainless steel canisters of spent nuclear fuel to be stored at the WCS facility in Texas.  Also, the proposed Holtec location in New Mexico will actually be a honeycomb structure, not a flat concrete pad (it will be similar to what is being built at San Onofre, but for many more containers).

However, neither of these differences improve matters much, because first of all, the concrete overpack and superstructure seriously impact an outside inspection of the dry casks: At best, some areas of the casks will be observable by remote-control robots that have not yet been designed, but even then, the most critical areas (the areas around support structures and other pressure points) will still be out of view.  How often any inspections will be done is also a matter of speculation: Recalling that San Onofre faked its fire inspection rounds for five years does not give any assurance of confidence.  Furthermore, the insides of the casks will have no monitoring whatsoever.  By the time a crack reaches the outer edge, it will be too late to do anything.  Attempting to lift a cracked canister could expose the entire contents, and even a microscopic through-wall crack could release "millions of Curies" of radiation, to quote Dr. Kris Singh of Holtec.

Perhaps more troubling is that the concrete overpacks at the WCS facility are not able to withstand the impact of a large aircraft; the fuel containers inside are sure to be damaged in a 9-11 style of airplane strike.  The Holtec design provides insufficient protection as well, but at least is a far better design for protection against smaller aircraft impacts.  However, it is a worse design from the perspective of an aviation fuel fire, because the fuel will fall into the vent holes (which all cement overpacks must have to release heat) and be able to burn for a long time around the casks.  Similarly, the proposed WCS facility will only be very gently sloped, which is insufficient to provide fast run-off for jet fuel.

Additionally, like the Oroville Dam problem currently unfolding in northern California, which had been assessed more than a decade ago but nothing was done, the infrastructure on which the nuclear waste will be transported is woefully lacking in proper maintenance, and every bridge the waste goes over or under is in danger of collapsing.

The bottom line is still that these proposals remain technically insufficient, they would be illegal under current law, they will be paid for with money absconded from funding set aside for a permanent repository, they will provide nuclear utilities with a free gift at taxpayer and citizen's expense, they will require overruling the concerns of citizens around the sites and along the transportation routes, and worst of all, they will provide a way for the continued production of nuclear waste at approximately 100 operating nuclear power plants, without any proper way to store the waste.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Ace Hoffman, computer programmer,
author, The Code Killers:
An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Orange Country Register reporter's pro-nuke bias is showing...

September 22nd, 2016

To the Editor, Orange County Register:

The following letter was sent to Teri Sforza yesterday, after her latest article about SanO's waste problem was published.

Best regards,

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA


Ms Sforza,

You wrote:

"...Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – who dearly wants to see more reactors as part of a clean energy future..."

There is nothing "clean" about nuclear power. You could have worded that sentence this way (change in CAPS):

"...Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – who dearly wants to see more reactors as part of a WHAT HE BELIEVES WOULD BE A clean energy future..."

But you didn't.

You also claimed that the Texas and New Mexico proposed "temporary" (I use that word sarcastically) nuclear waste sites "could be up and running while the prickly question of finding a location for a permanent hashed out."

There are at least two problems with that statement: First of all, there is no reason to believe the "temporary" sites will actually ever come to fruition-- if if they do, that they would in fact be temporary. There are changes to a variety of laws protecting citizens for outsiders imposing waste dumps on them that would have to be made, and the transportation infrastructure would need to be rebuilt to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars for the roads and rails to be safe enough for such transport. Additionally, liability for the waste would have to be transferred to the storage locations, or the utilities will refuse the deal, since, as Tom Palmisano has stated, in his refusal to consider even sending SanO's waste to Palo Verde (with its much sparser population density, and no tsunami risk and very little earthquake risk), which SCE is a part owner of, that SCE does not want to be held legally responsible for the waste when they cannot control how well it is managed. So either the "temporary" site will have to accept the liability along with the waste -- which no sane company would do -- or there would have to be significant and complex changes to the laws governing liability for nuclear waste.

And this all ignores the additional fact that the majority of citizens of every state in the union do not desire to become the nation's nuclear waste repository.

Second of all, what you call the "root of the present paralysis" in finding a permanent waste site is not something that can simply be "hashed out." Rather, it is something that cannot be scientifically resolved at all! It is, in a word, impossible to find a safe permanent solution. Your article strongly implies otherwise. But if you were around (which as far as I know, you weren't) for the Yucca Mountain hearings, you would have heard about the ~300 science-based objections to Yucca Mountain by Nevada's experts, and dozens more by California's experts, and hundreds more by citizens around the country -- and if you had been around even longer ago, you would have learned that Yucca Mountain was chosen because every other site in the country had already been rejected for other reasonable reasons: Too close to population centers, unstable ground, water tables flowing past them that provide drinking water to millions of people, tornadoes, tsunamis...and yes, there was also, and always will be, enormous public opposition to having a site nearby. Nobody wants this waste and that's never going to change.

Also disappointing and indicating bias was your statement, regarding reactors in California, that: "All are shut down, or will close shortly..." DCNPP is not scheduled to close until 2025, and there is in fact no binding agreement that guarantees it will close even then. In the meantime, it will produce, if it doesn't melt down, millions of pounds of additional nuclear waste, none of which has any possibility of safe storage. The fact is: DCNPP is neither "scheduled to close" and certainly not "shortly." It has made an offer, which it does not have to act on ever, and which Mothers for Peace, for example -- the longest-running intervenor at DCNPP (or perhaps anywhere) refused to be a party to, in part because there's nothing binding about it.

Lastly, I was disappointed that your article didn't discuss a topic which Tom Palmisano had said, at the most recent SCE/CEP meeting last week, was the most critical issue in storing nuclear waste: Avoiding criticality events. None of the "temporary" sites have any plan whatsoever to render a criticality event impossible: They are all (including the ~70 current "temporary" waste sites in America, including all in California) vulnerable to airplane strikes and terrorism, not to mention earthquakes and, for coastal "temporary" sites (like SanO and DCNPP), tsunamis. Any of these events are capable of causing a criticality event in spent fuel, because "spent" fuel is only financially no longer viable fuel: There is still plenty of fissile material in it.

But neutralizing the U-235 and Pu-239 WOULD make criticality events impossible, and that can be done using laser-produced photons in the 10 to 15 MeV range. Doing so would not only make criticality events impossible, and render extraction of bomb-making material impossible too, but it would also reduce the required storage time from about half a million years to a "mere" 600 or so -- nearly three times the life of this nation so far, but still a far more manageable and understandable length of time than how long any other waste "solution" must be projected out. (After that time, the fuel would be only about four times more dangerous than so-called "depleted" uranium, still not puff-pastry, but far less dangerous than fission products and/or fissile materials.)

Without neutralization, we are talking about lengths of time far longer than the pyramids have stood. Far longer than man has walked erect. Far longer than any imaginable building or facility will last.

Instead, Dianne Feinstein is demanding that some poverty-stricken community take the waste -- for a bribe ($25 million has already been set aside by the DOE for downpayments on those bribes) -- in order to somehow cause the rest of the country to "accept" nuclear power and believe it is "safe" in spite of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and 1,000 close calls besides those events.

The real lesson of Yucca Mountain is that safe storage of nuclear waste is impossible, and creating more of it is irresponsible.

If you're going to write pro-nuclear articles, you should apply for work with the Nuclear Energy Institute, the World Nuclear Association or the International Atomic Energy Association, the latter of which has always claimed to be unbiased, but isn't, in part due to the information it considers. As a recent article in the Times of London put it, nuke plants are guilty of "not reporting to national regulators [about accidents], regulators not reporting to the IAEA, & the IAEA not reporting at all." They'll accept your biased statements without question. The OCR should not.

If you are going to write for an American newspaper, please be fair and balanced, factual and unbiased in any direction.

Best regards,

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Link to Times article cited above:

Link to OCR article:

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."

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An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
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