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Nuke Nervousness
Don Mosier | Rimini Road

Two recent events highlighted the ongoing safety concerns at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) as the highly radioactive and (literally) hot fuel assemblies are transferred from the cooling pond to the stainless steel Holtec canisters used for dry storage. KPBS interviewed local experts and former Nuclear Regulation Commission (NRC) Chairman Greg Jaczko who voiced their concerns about the reliability of the Holtec canisters, the inability to monitor for temperature or radiation leaks, and the low probability of the canisters ever moving to another site. The canisters are being installed vertically into concrete pads with the bottom just above the current mean high tide level. The harsh marine environment and predicted sea level rise pose challenges to maintaining safe radioactive containment in all 73 canisters when the transfer from the cooling pool is completed next year.

However, a nearly disastrous accident on August 3rd was revealed by a contract employee at the August meeting of the Citizen Engagement Panel appointed by Southern California Edison (SCE). The attachment between the spent fuel assembly and the crane lifting it into the storage canister was misaligned, resulting in the assembly being wedged into the canister with only a ¼-inch ledge keeping it from dropping 18 feet. The worker, identified by the San Diego Union Tribune as David Fritch working with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), cited poor training and high worker turnover as contributing factors. SCE, NRC and Holtec deny that the accident posed a high risk of radiation release, but nonetheless pledged to increase safety training. This accident and an earlier one involving the failure of a steel pin used in lifting a storage canister, were not reported to the NRC as required until after the OSHA contractor made his public disclosure.

SONGS had the worst safety record of any nuclear power plant in the U.S. when it stopped generation in 2012. The current decommissioning process involves less oversight by the NRC, fewer safety controls, and no emergency evacuation plan. Three and half million pounds of highly radioactive spent fuel rods will be stored there, and, if Greg Jaczko is right, this will be their final resting place.

 

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