Environment Report: Why San Diego Can’t Recycle Its Nuclear Waste
What if the 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station must now store under tight security, within double canisters of steel in a thick concrete bunker along an earthquake fault line on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, had a second use? Here in the United States it cannot.
I’ve been on a kick lately, writing about the things we waste as a San Diego society. The climate change-slowing potential of mud. The planet-warming gas that rotting organics give off in our leaky landfills. And now the enormous energy potential of our local nuclear waste pile, that is, if we could recycle it.
If you’re a nuclear scientist or possess even a rudimentary understanding of how nuclear power works (which I did not until my tour of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, last week), it’s likely no surprise to you that the radioactive waste we bury for thousands of years in this country actually could be recycled. “It’s only waste if you waste it,” said John Dobken, a spokesman for SONGS, which is owned by the private utility Southern California Edison, during a Nov. 30 media tour of the plant.
The news floored me. I gazed upon the huge concrete domes, those metaphorical atomic tatas, with new eyes, like a long-married couple rekindling their vows after 28 years of marriage. (That’s how long those nuclear boobies, each with a separate nuclear reactor inside, provided power before being decommissioned or shut down.)
What if the 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel SONGS must now store under tight security, within double canisters of steel in a thick concrete bunker along an earthquake fault line on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, had a second use?
Here in the United States it cannot. Instead, utilities like SoCal Edison and Rep. Mike Levin are pushing the federal government to find one big place where all the closed nuclear power plants can finally lay their highly-radioactive nuclear waste to rest.
“All the used fuel we have in the U.S. could provide electricity for 300 years,” Dobken said. “It’s a valuable resource but we’re not using it as that currently in this country.”
Utilities that own nuclear power plants would probably like to relinquish care of nuclear waste on their dime. Plus, advocacy groups have been suing over storage plans. So why can’t the United States recycle nuclear fuel?
Because Jimmy Carter said we can’t. And, well, because a byproduct of nuclear fuel is plutonium, which can be mixed with other stuff and used again in a nuclear reactor, but also can be used to make nuclear weapons. Carter wanted to put a lid on the number of countries with access to the potentially deadly but also useful radioactive element. He deferred “indefinitely” the commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium found in spent fuel, according to this 1977 article from the Washington Post.
Instead, the United States buys its nuclear fuel, uses it once, and then has to bury it and take care of it for 10,000 years – how long it takes for the fuel to cool completely (and turn into less harmful substances).
“It’s not very efficient but it solves the problems related to having a lot of plutonium rattling around in the system where somebody might steal it and make a bomb with it,” said Ed Morse, a nuclear scientist at University of California, Berkeley.
Nuclear has been pushed aside politically, Morse said. Other countries recycle their nuclear fuel, like France which gets about 72 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. The country recovers up to 96 percent of that spent fuel and reruns it through its power plants, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency reports.
Dobken estimates if the United States had a fuel reprocessing program like France’s, theoretically SONGS would have a fifth of the nuclear waste it has now.
A quick and carbon-free lesson on how nuclear power works:
Uranium is the source of nuclear power in conventional plants like SONGS. Uranium is a metal that’s mined from places like Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia and Australia and then imported into the United States. (The United States actually has domestic uranium resources mostly in the western desert states, however. We’re not getting into that right now.)
Uranium is then shipped by truck or train to SONGS in little inch-long pellets which are then put into huge, metal fuel rods suspended in water. There, nuclear operators can control the nuclear reaction, meaning the splitting of uranium atoms, a process that creates heat energy.
The rest is very basic in terms of generating electricity from that heat. The heat from splitting the atoms boils or pressurizes water, which creates steam that’s blasted through huge metal turbines. That turbine generates electricity sent directly to the regular power grid, you know, the poles and wires that line highways and streets.
That uranium fuel is used for three to five years, then removed from the reactor and stored in water for another five years so the fuel rods can be cooled down. Finally the “spent” fuel is moved to the concrete bunker, called “dry storage.”
Why are we scared of this nuclear waste? We’ve all seen photographs of a mushroom cloud released by an atomic bomb or the panic sent worldwide after nuclear disasters at Fukishima or Chernobyl. But at a retired nuclear power plant, what you’ve really gotta worry about is the radiation emitted by the decaying element. It can damage our DNA and cause cancer. So that material is handled delicately.
Nuclear power has a public relations problem. But the benefits are tempting, especially as California looks for reliable fuel sources to prevent power outages this coming summer. For just a small amount of fuel, nuclear power plants produce ginormous amounts of energy that’s carbon-free, meaning no planet-warming gases are added to the atmosphere.
Just under 100 nuclear power generators remain in the United States but together provide 20 percent of the country’s electricity generation. It takes about 11 natural gas power plants to produce the power of one nuclear plant.
The waste produced by natural gas use, carbon dioxide and methane is invisible to the naked eye. Nuclear waste isn’t so ignorable and often fantasized in science fiction and the Simpsons. We have been closing reactors in the United States over the years until recently, as renewed urgency for carbon-free sources to curb climate change have sparked advocacy against the closure of California’s last power plant, Diablo Canyon near Avila beach, according to KSBY.
There’s no future left for SONGS, though. SoCal Edison is beginning a years-long decommissioning or dismantling process. The plant hasn’t produced energy since 2012 when the company shuttered power production after discovering a leak in a steam generator. One billion pounds of waste will be produced by the end of SONGS’ deconstruction, 80 percent of which is radioactively contaminated and has to be shipped to special landfills in Texas and Utah.
Once that’s over, the only thing of significance remaining will be that 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel slowly cooling in its concrete bunker. That is, unless, we find renewed use for it.
In Other News
- A really creepy deep-sea fish washed ashore and was discovered by an unsuspecting North County beachgoer. (ABC 10)
- California is working on a system to categorize and rank heat waves to help communities prepare and reduce the health risks. (Union-Tribune)
- The city of Imperial Beach is digging a series of wells to control flooding that comes from sea level rise and winter king tides. (NBC 7)
- Where o’ where should a transit hub go in San Diego? Regional planners once wanted to replace an old Navy building in Old Town. Now they’re eyeing downtown. (Voice of San Diego)
- We know a lot about what’s causing climate change, we don’t really understand the role clouds play (while we know they are really good at reflecting and filtering energy from the sun). Scripps Institution of Oceanography built a new tool that might help us figure that out once and for all. (Union-Tribune)
- The new COVID variant Omicron caused a slight dip in local gas prices. (Union-Tribune)