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North County Report: The Head-Spinning Complexity of Moving Nuclear Waste Out of San Diego

The clock is ticking on attempts to find a suitable destination for nuclear waste from the decommissioned San Onofre power station north of Oceanside, and Carlsbad is sending a new representative to SANDAG.

With the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant as their backdrop, Jennifer Beard (back left), her son Finn (front left) and their friends enjoy an afternoon at the beach. Photo: Sam Hodgson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to do with the spent nuclear fuel at the decommissioned San Onofre power station north of Oceanside — let’s just call it “waste” — is an important question. But I hadn’t spent much time thinking about it because it seemed remote and abstract.

Then my friendly neighborhood kombucha seller intervened.

After I noticed some anti-San Onofre fliers in his shop a few weeks ago, he handed me a packet of seeds. While the various public and private interests get their act together, he encouraged me to do my part. Sunflowers, he said, help pull radiation out of the Earth.

That’s one idea.

Since then, I’ve discovered that lots of people have lots ideas about what to do with the millions of pounds of nuclear waste in San Diego County sitting, as the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation put it, “100 feet from the shoreline, on a receding bluff, near a fault line … next to the one of the nation’s busiest freeways, and within roughly 50 miles of the densely populated City of San Diego.”

Everyone with a stake in San Onofre seems to agree today that the waste shouldn’t be there, especially as the Pacific Ocean creeps closer. But moving the waste inland is politically difficult because it requires buy-in from outside communities and action at the federal level.

“We have maybe a year to work on this,” said David Victor, a UCSD professor international relations and chair of a San Onofre community engagement panel, “then the presidential election will shut down the conversation.”

Southern California Edison, the station’s majority owner, has long maintained that the waste is safe and being properly stored. Earlier this week, a nonprofit estimated that a major release of radiation on the site could cause upwards of $13 trillion in economic damage. According to the Union-Tribune, a spokesman for SoCal Edison said the report was “fearmongering at its worst” because that kind of release is no longer possible.

San Onofre was closed and then decommissioned in 2013 after the detection of a small radiation leak. When the station’s owners got permission from the California Coastal Commission in 2015 to begin burying the waste in dry bunkers on the beach, they cited a lack of off-site places willing to take it. Several groups filed suit and the owners agreed in 2017 to move the canisters away from the Pacific Ocean. Eventually. And pending the development of a federally approved facility, possibly in New Mexico, Texas or Arizona.

There’s been a growing sense of urgency in recent months, and not just among activist kombucha sellers. Although no one was hurt, an incident in August has given plenty of cause for concern.

Workers at the station were loading a nuclear canister into a bunker when it got wedged near the top and remained that way for about 45 minutes, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Eventually the workers readjusted and lowered the canister the remaining 18 feet.

SoCal Edison told regulators about the incident the following business day, but the public didn’t learn of it until a contractor blew the whistle at a later community meeting. In response, an independent nuclear expert told the U-T that although the incident posed no threat to public, the station was “tempting fate.”

Even the station’s chief nuclear operator said the incident was unacceptable and suspended the transfer of nuclear fuel from cooling pools into dry bunkers on the San Onofre site. He has also acknowledged a second, previously unreported incident, in July, when workers encountered trouble lowering another canister into place. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected soon to hand down a punishment.

Meanwhile, according to the U-T, former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre, who sued San Onofre’s owners in 2015, is asking the FBI to investigate whether the handling of nuclear waste by a SoCal Edison contractor rises to the level of a criminal violation.

So, Where’s the Nuclear Waste Supposed to Go?

Last year, the U.S. House passed a bill intending to redevelop permanent storage at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, which had already received billions in investment but had been stalled under the Obama administration thanks to Sen. Harry Reid. That bill had the support of then-Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican whose district included San Onofre, and was meant to appease lawmakers who were reluctant to hold the waste before it went to the final destination.

In bureaucratic-speak, these facilities are known as “interim storage.”

From Victor’s perspective, the August incident at San Onofre demonstrated a failure of management and SoCal Edison needs to rebuild trust. But it also helped drive the conversation off the rails.

“People started advocating more and more ideas that don’t have a practical reality,” he said. “I can appreciate that politics and emotion are part of the normal debate, but we need to be careful to not do things contrary to our interests.”

For instance, some have proposed moving the waste higher onto the San Onofre property, away from the shoreline. That’s way more difficult than it sounds. At some point, SoCal Edison is going to return control of the land to the military, but there’s little incentive for the military to shoulder the burden.

Instead, Victor and other members of his panel have argued that Congress needs to clarify federal law to make clear that interim storage is legal. That would allow local communities and companies actually interested in holding the waste to compete for investments and jobs. Victor would also like to see legislation clarifying that stations like San Onofre, which are closed, get priority when the time comes to start shipping canisters. There are dozens of sites across the country where waste is accumulating with nowhere to go.

Rep. Mike Levin, a Democrat who took Issa’s seat after he retired, said something similar. He thinks stations like San Onofre, which can show clear environmental vulnerabilities, should be considered a high-priority.

In a Times of San Diego op-ed in 2017, Levin, then the head of an environmental nonprofit, expressed skepticism over the ability of Rick Perry’s Department of Energy to oversee the movement and storage of the nation’s nuclear waste, citing campaign donors with questionable management records. Levin told me that sides with other Democrats who think a new independent agency is needed to ensure communities that don’t really want the waste aren’t forced to take it.

“From an environmental justice perspective,” he said, “we shouldn’t be trying to take our waste and knowingly and willfully sending it a community that doesn’t consent.”

Because he’s heard some “fairly extreme things” about Yucca Mountain — some say it’s geologically untenable, others say it’s perfectly acceptable — he wants to tour that site and others for himself. He’s also putting together a task force that will convene monthly in his Oceanside office.

Oh! The congressman also told me he believes we don’t have an adequate evacuation strategy on the books in case something bad really does happen. Maybe I’ll go plant some sunflowers seeds after all.

[Disclosure: San Diego Gas & Electric owns a 20 percent stake in San Onofre and Mitch Mitchell, the company’s vice president for government affairs, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.]

New Leadership at SANDAG

The San Diego Association of Governments is changing fast. Some of the most influential board members, like former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, were forced out of office in the last election. Shifting demographics are also playing a role in how the regional planning agency operates.

In Carlsbad, for instance, a new Democrat majority on the City Council declined to reappoint Mayor Matt Hall, a Republican, to the SANDAG executive board. As KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen noted on Twitter, newly elected Councilwoman Barbara Hamilton in December offered a thinly veiled critique of Hall by disagreeing with the agency’s reliance on freeways over public transit.

Instead, this week, the city’s elected Democrats appointed Councilwoman Cori Schumacher, who vowed to bring a new vision to the regional planning agency and criticized the last executive board for not asking harder questions of its scandalized executive director, who resigned after trying to hide accounting errors.

Hall attempted to salvage his place on the executive board by highlighting his years of experience at SANDAG. He also warned that whichever member of the Carlsbad City Council took his place would have to own the increased number of housing units that are mandated by the state and divvied up by the agency.

Andrew Keatts profiled the agency’s new executive director, Hasan Ikhrata, this week. Over the next two years, he, too, will be tasked with articulating a new vision for the region while cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor.

Museums Leveling the Playing Field for Women

Inspired by a report out of Los Angeles, VOSD contributor Julia Dixon Evans took a closer look at visual art and design museums in our region to see how the number of solo shows for men and women stacked up. Female artists, it turns out, were more likely to get a solo show in North County.

One possible reason: the museums in North County are more willing to take risks by providing a platform for artists who haven’t been vetted by the bigger, mainstream institutions.

Latest Land Use Battles

There’s a sense around the VOSD newsroom that if you want to understand local politics, look to a municipality’s decisions on land use.

That seems especially true in North County, where development disputes dominate the headlines. Here are some of the projects under the microscope in recent weeks:

The Building Industry Association presented a report last month to the Oceanside City Council, which led to a conversation about the types of housing that the region is building and where. Two interesting stats from this Coast News recap:

  • Approximately 66,000 people drive to work in San Diego County from southern Riverside County, where it’s more affordable to live.
  • JP Theberge of the activist group Grow the Way San Diego said the average new home being built in San Diego County costs about $650,000, meaning a buyer would need to make about 200 percent of the median income. Last year, he explained why the housing crisis is one of affordability, not just supply, in a commentary for VOSD.

In Other News

  • I took a closer look at last year’s 76th Assembly District primary race and the sinking of Republican Phil Graham’s campaign, which allowed two Democrats to compete in the general. You’d probably read about the allegation of sexual misconduct against Graham and how authorities say it was made up. But there’s plenty more to the story.
  • Ry Rivard had a pair of good pieces. Despite spending six years and $1 million, San Diego County still doesn’t have a climate action plan that can withstand legal challenge. A former federal judge and arbitrator ruled that the San Diego County Water Authority tried to interfere with the delivery of water to five Indian tribes based on illegal actions and illogical arguments.
  • Carlsbad is suing San Diego County over the proposed expansion of the McClellan-Palomar Airport, alleging that the master plan does not comply with state environmental law. Attorney Cory Briggs is also suing the county on similar grounds. (The Coast News)
  • Eight people have applied for Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath’s vacant seat on the Encinitas City Council. In Oceanside, nearly 30 people are vying for that city’s open Council seat, including former Councilman Jerry Kern and Michelle Gomez, a Democrat who ran for Supervisor in the last election. (Union-Tribune)
  • Progressive activists in North County helped plan a protest outside Rep. Duncan Hunter’s Temecula office on the same day the new Congress was sworn in. They brought attention to a package of reform bills that would, among other things, expand voting rights and require dark money groups to publicly disclose their donors. (Union-Tribune)
  • A former Poway official looks back on a copyright infringement dispute stemming from the new city’s seal in the 1980s. At trial, Poway’s closing argument “included a slideshow of the widely varying ways that famed artists had portrayed a basket of fruit.” (Union-Tribune)
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