A legal challenge looking to interrupt dismantlement work at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station suffered an preliminary setback Wednesday.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff issued a tentative decision rejecting a lawsuit by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, an advocacy group based in Del Mar, that argued the California Coastal Commission “abused its discretion” when it issued a permit allowing Southern California Edison to take down buildings and other infrastructure at the now-shuttered plant.
Beckloff has 60 to 90 days to issue a final ruling but in his 12-page tentative decision, the judge said the commission did not violate its own regulations when it OK’d the permit.
“This isn’t over,” said Chelsi Sparti associate director at the Samuel Lawrence Foundation. “The judge took our points under submission and the case is ongoing … We are fully supportive of plant decommissioning. We want to make sure that it is done in a way that is most protective of coastal resources and the public. The California Coastal Commission has not given us those assurances.”
Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz said the commission shares the “significant concerns” raised by the foundation and urges the federal government to find a permanent repository to store nuclear waste from the plant, known as SONGS for short. “The Commission does not have jurisdiction to regulate this federal issue, however, and agrees with the court’s tentative ruling.”
Edison spokesman John Dobken said the commission made the correct decision when it approved the permit and the dismantlement at SONGS “continues to progress in a safe and timely manner. We look forward to the court’s final ruling on this matter.”
The heart of the complaint centers on a pair of spent fuel pools that are scheduled to be torn down.
At commercial nuclear power plants, when the highly radioactive fuel rods used to generate electricity lose their effectiveness, operators place the assemblies in a metal rack that is lowered about 40 feet into a “wet storage” pool, typically for about five years, to cool.
Edison has since taken the assemblies, placed them into stainless steel canisters and moved them in two “dry storage” facilities on the north end of the plant. One facility holds 50 canisters and another, more recently constructed site, holds 73 canisters.
Edison says the pools are unnecessary now that the spent fuel, or nuclear waste, sits in dry storage.
The Samuel Lawrence Foundation suit argues Edison should keep the pools in place in case the canisters ever get damaged or degrade over time.
“The commission is avoiding the elephant in the room and that is the transportability of the spent fuel,” said Samuel Lawrence Foundation attorney Sabrina Venkus, insisting the Coastal Commission has not done enough analysis to make an informed decision.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” countered Edison attorney Edward Casey, saying the commission looked at evidence and analysis from the State Land Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when it approved the permit.
Beckloff’s tentative decision sided with Edison and the commission, citing the Land Commission’s environmental report that said there are “available technologies” besides a spent fuel pool to repair or replace a potentially damaged canister.
The environmental report also said keeping the pools intact was infeasible since they are interconnected to other buildings “in the heart of the plant” and would pose “significant challenges” to decontaminate and dismantle the site.
In addition, Edison says its current license with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission prohibits the company from putting the waste back into the pools.
The Samuel Lawrence Foundation argued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides leeway for Edison to determine how to decommission the plant and the Coastal Commission should go back and conduct its own analysis.
Beckloff’s tentative decision said “the court is not authorized to determine who has the better evidence — here the issue is whether substantial evidence supports the Coastal Commission’s action.” And on that count, Becklott said the commission met the evidence requirements, followed the law and “did not abuse its discretion” by issuing the permit.
The commission’s 9-0 vote in October 2019 included 18 special conditions, including the establishment by Edison of an enhanced inspection and maintenance program for the canisters. The permit lasts for 20 years and allows the Coastal Commission by 2035 to revisit whether the dry storage site should be moved to another location in case of rising sea levels, earthquake risk, canister damage or other scenarios.
All told, there are 3.55 million pounds of used-up fuel in the canisters at SONGS, which is located between the Pacific and Interstate 5. The waste remains on SONGS premises because, just as seen at 121 commercial nuclear sites in 35 states, the federal government has not opened a facility to deposit it.
“I think we’re all trying to push as hard as possible to get the federal government to step up and do what they should have done 40 or 50 years ago,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco said at the Coastal Commission’s 2019 meeting.
SONGS has not produced electricity since 2012 after a leak in a steam generator tube led to the closing of the plant.
SONGS dismantlement operations began in March 2020 and, if they proceed, are expected to take about eight years to complete. About 2 billion pounds of equipment, components, concrete and steel will be removed from the plant, which has not produced power since 2012.
The two distinctive containment domes, each 25 feet high, are scheduled to come down around 2027.
About 450,000 tons of material labeled low-level nuclear waste will be shipped — mostly by rail — to a disposal facility in Clive, Utah. Another 35 tons of low-level waste will get shipped by truck to a facility in the West Texas town of Andrews.
According to Edison’s plans, all that will remain at SONGS will be two dry storage facilities, a security building with personnel to look over the waste, a seawall, a walkway connecting two beaches north and south of the plant, and a switchyard with power lines.