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The Ethics and Politics of Nuclear Waste are Being Tested in Southern California

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For more than 70 years – basically for my entire 77-year lifetime – nuclear waste has been building up at nuclear weapons and energy production and waste storage facilities across the US and around the world.

The most basic tenet of the nuclear religious cult’s belief system over that entire time has been a cheery

“Don’t worry. Be happy. Methods and places for isolating these manmade materials, toxic to all life forms, will soon be found to isolate them from the environment and all future generations for longer than human civilization has yet existed.  Or, better yet, we will find a way to transform them into benign and productive forms to benefit our own and all future generations.”

Despite decades of research by the best minds of the species and billions of dollars of public and private wealth invested, that has not happened.  Nor does it seem likely to any time soon, despite continuing assurances from the pro-nuclear True Believers.

Meanwhile the total global inventory of this deadly stuff continues to grow.  Now, although a new nuclear weapons race seems to be in motion thanks to US initiative, there are signs that the international nuclear energy industry is tanking.

Six US nukes have closed in the last five years, with more scheduled.   The International Energy Agency expects almost 200 reactor closures between 2014 and 2040.  Plants now under construction are all behind schedule and way over budget.  Existing orders are being canceled.

In the US, as more and more energy reactors are being shut down and are entering the decommissioning process, the overriding question is becoming unavoidable at reactor communities across the country: What do we do with all these decades of tons of accumulated radwaste now being stored on-site?  Each canister contains a Chernobyl’s-worth of cesium; each cooling pool, hundreds more.

Utilities are suing the Federal Government for not keeping its promise to take responsibility of the radwaste in a centralized geological repository.  Local communities are agitating to ‘just get it outa here.’  But to where?  And, given the decrepitude of existing highway and railway transportation infrastructures, how would you move all those thousands of tons of potential bomb material through numerous on-route communities despite local public resistance on safety grounds, not to mention the risks of terrorist attacks?

The San Onofre Syndrome

Perhaps nowhere is this conundrum more starkly illustrated or contested than in Southern California’s archetypally ‘conservative’ Orange County, home of the recently shutdown San Onofre nuclear generating station.

Known by the happy-sounding acronym SONGS, the plant’s two nuclear reactors, operated by Southern California Edison, were shutdown in 2013 after its 4 newly installed steam generators (2 per reactor) failed and leaked radioactive steam due to design flaws made by Edison and their manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.  The design flaws, known to exist by both corporations, was concealed in reports and missed by lax regulatory oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Local activist groups like San Clemente Green, SanOnofreSafety.org and Residents Organized for a Safe Environment (ROSE) and others allied with the national organization Friends of the Earth (FoE) in a successful campaign for shutdown, only to discover Edison’s crazy plans to bury its tons of accumulated radioactive waste in extremely thin, unmonitorable and unrepairible canisters, inches above the water table, just yards above the rising ocean surf in an earthquake and tsunami zone –  just like Fukushima.

Now the idyllic region of high-end retirement communities and tourist havens is locked in a microcosmic debate whose outcome may well set a precedent for the country’s radwaste policies.

“Do No Harm” & “Do Unto Others…”

The regional activist community is currently polarized between those who advocate “just get it outa here to somewhere else by any means necessary,” and those who are trying to deal with the technical, ethical and political dimensions of arriving at a ‘least worst’ compromise that takes both the safety of the 8.5 million surrounding population AND the national policy implications into consideration.

Dan Hirsch is a longtime nuclear safety advocate, a Professor at UC Santa Cruz and  President of  the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a non-profit nuclear policy organization focusing on issues of nuclear safety, waste disposal, proliferation, and disarmament.

In a recent discussion, Hirsch suggested two guiding principles for reactor community members to consider in their deliberations: the “Father of Modern Medicine” Hippocrates’ dictum, “First, do no harm,” and the so-called Golden Rule common to the world’s religions, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In this case, that means not acting so as to set precedents based on local self-interest that make things worse locally or nationally, and not dumping waste on other communities with less political or economic clout and risking millions all along the transport routes on the way to them.

Hirsch, who, with others around the state and the country, has spent his life in often successful fights for improved nuclear safeguards against seemingly hopeless odds, fears that those decades of dedicated work could now be undone if the ‘just get it outa here’ faction of so-called ‘environmentalists’ are tricked into being willing allies of the nuclear industry in its long-term quest to wash its hands of nuclear liabilities and hand them over to the American public.

Centralized Interim Storage (CIS)

The immediate context that makes these issues of currently vital significance, is the fact that presently moving through Congress at warp speed is the so-called the Shimkus bill – the H.R. 3053 Nuclear Waste Policy Amendment Act of 2017.

According to close analysis by SoCal activists Donna Gilmore and Judy Jones, the Shimkus Bill “will make us less safe and not solve the nuclear waste problems, yet preempts existing state and local water and air rights and other rights [and] removes safety requirements needed to prevent radioactive leaks.”  It also removes all oversight.

The Bill’s main sponsor, Republican Congressman John Shimkus, is Chair of the Subcommittee on the Environment of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.  Shimkus comes from Illinois, stronghold of nuclear energy giant Exelon, and home to 11 nuclear reactors.

BeyondNuclear.org reports,

Despite a 50-group environmental coalition in opposition, H.R. 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017, as amended, passed the U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee by a vote of 49 to 4. All Republican members, and all but four Democrats (Schakowsky of IL, Ben Lujan of NM, Loebsack of IA, and Engel of NY) who were present, voted in favor of reviving the cancelled Yucca Mountain, NV high-level radioactive waste dump, and legalizing private de facto permanent parking lot dumps, targeted at TX and NM. If enacted, the legislation could pave the way for unprecedented numbers of irradiated nuclear fuel truck and train, as well as barge, shipments to begin moving in just a few years, through most statesmany major cities, and most U.S. congressional districts, risking Mobile Chernobyls, Floating Fukushimas, and Dirty Bombs on Wheels.

The Shimkus Bill is an attempt to move forward the concept of Centralized Interim Storage (CIS), a kind of stop-gap strategy to stop the hemorrhaging of Federal funds to utilities suing for non-compliance with its legal obligation under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to take possession of radwaste from energy and weapons production.  It also provides a way for nuclear operators to continue producing more of this lethal waste.

In the absence of a national central radioactive waste repository, CIS means taking radwaste from current on-site storage at nuclear plants and moving it to ‘temporary’ above ground storage facilities, with locations in poor, rural minority communities in Nevada, Texas and New Mexico the most currently favored.

Not only does this plan necessitate moving shipments of tons of deadly radwaste on America’s crumbling rails, roads and bridges for years to come – vulnerable to accident and terrorist attack – but it also means the waste will have to be moved again, when and IF, a central repository is ever agreed upon.  Given the history of Yucca Mountain, that seems very unlikely indeed.  A sincere effort needs to be made in the search for permanent repositories.

The Nulear Waste Policy Act originally called for the identification of three sites in the Eastern US and three sites in the West.  Political maneuvering led to a ‘Screw Nevada’ strategy because it had the fewest Congressional votes,  and the million dollar development of the state’s Yucca Mountain site.  Originally thought to be dry and impermeable to the migration of radioactive elements, the discovery that trace elements from explosions at the nearby Nevada Nuclear Test Site had penetrated deep into the Yucca Mountain facility in a relatively few years debunked that contention.  The project was terminated by the Obama Admistration and is now essentially an abandoned relic of bad politics, wishful thinking, and failed scientific hypotheses.

The current attempt in the Shimkus Bill at resuscitating the failed Yucca Mountain dump is a desperate fool’s errand that reveals the utter moral and ethical bankruptcy of US Nuclear Waste policy.

The San Onofre Solution – Looking for the ‘Least Worst’

That’s why the current attempt by the groups in the San Onofre reactor community to agree on a ‘least worse’ way of dealing with the plant’s tons of accumulated waste represents what may be a pivotal microcosm in this vital national and international issue.

None of the options being considered are totally satisfactory by any standard:

* Bury it just above the water table, in the sand, on the beach, in flimsy cans, in an earthquake and tsunami zone, vulnerable to terrorist attack, yards from the rising sea;

* Ship it to poor communities in Nevada, Texas or New Mexico;

* Send it to Arizona’s Palo Verde reactor site;

* Take it to California’s Mojave desert (already the site of a successful ten year fight to block a proposed nuclear dump);

* Move it farther from the ocean, across I-5 to higher ground, out of tsunami range on the Camp Pendleton Marine base land the reactor operator is already leasing.

Applying Hirsch’s criteria, which option is likely to do the least harm to the least people and bioregions?

Keeping it anywhere on Camp Pendleton still poses a risk to the millions in the regional population between San Diego and LA.  But moving it anywhere else would endanger millions more there and along all the shipping routes; and, in the case of the Texas and New Mexico sites, the millions more who are dependent on the vast Ogallala Aquifer, supplying drinking and agricultural water in eight key breadbasket states.

Packaging

Underlying and complicating all these considerations is the choice of containers for storage of the highly radioactive nuclear fuel assemblies.

Extensive documented research by San Onofre Safety founder Donna Gilmore shows that the Edison’s container choices – currently being implemented – are not only unsuited to San Onofre’s corrosive salt air marine environment, but make monitoring for leaks and repackaging leaking containers impossible.  That, in turn, disqualifies them for transport under current Nuclear Regulatory Agency regulations, even if a target location could be found.  And, as Donna puts it “Would you buy a car that couldn’t be checked for leaks or be repaired?”

Studies to determine whether the cladding holding the intensely irradiated fuel would hold or fail during the vibrations of transport haven’t been completed yet.

Meanwhile Southern California Edison is executing their plan to bury the lethal waste on the San Clemente beach with no opposition from public agencies.

The state agencies (Coastal Commission, Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission) are all appointed by Governor Brown, and have all been informed that these storage canisters have fatal flaws. Yet, they continue approving storage of more canisters by the beach, and giving Edison millions of dollars to buy more of them.  Research data show that existing canisters may leak and potentially explode in a few short years, but these agencies don’t see this as their problem.  Governor Brown has yet to speak on these issues.

The SanOnofreSafety.org site offers handouts for elected officials and others

* Urgent nuclear waste canister problems

*Coastal Commission should revoke nuclear waste storage permit

*Comments to DOE consent based siting: Plan risks major radioactive leaks

*Dry Cask Inventory by State as of June 30, 2013

Another element in the mix is the California Coastal Commission’s approval of the Edison storage plan, an approval currently being contested in the suit brought by the legal team of Mike Aguirre and Mia Sieverson on behalf of their client Ray Lutz, and his Citizens’ Oversight organization.  The suit has led to closed-door negotiations with Edison, the outcome of which have yet to be announced.

Any ultimate agreement which would meet Dan Hirsch’s criteria of ‘first, do no harm and then, don’t do to other communities what you would not want to have done to yours,’ would have to embody the highest current standard for radwaste management: Hardened, monitorable, retrievable on-site storage.

Those standards should be the minimum foundation of any responsible nuclear waste policy which admits the existential risks that the tragic choices of Atomic Age technocrats have imposed on us and all future generations.

A first step in that direction should be the defeat of the deadly and anti-democratic Shimkus Bill.

A second would be to demand Edison contain the waste in the most robust, monitorable, retrievable container casks available.  Most industrialized countries use casks 12-20 inches thick.  Edison’s are only 5/8ths of an inch thick.

More articles by:

James Heddle is a filmmaker and writer who co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan.  Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection Pt. ! – The Case of San Onofre is now in post-production.  He can be reached at jamesmheddle@gmail.com

CounterPunch Magazine


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