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Halting Holtec – A Challenge for Nuclear Safety Advocates

The loading of 3.6 million pounds of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel has been indefinitely halted at the San Onofre independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI), operated by Southern California Edison and designed by Holtec International.

Last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) fined Southern California Edison an unprecedented $116,000 for failing to report the near drop of an 54 ton canister of radioactive waste, and is delaying giving the go-ahead to further loading operations until serious questions raised by the incident have been resolved.

Critics have long been pointing out that locating a dump for tons of waste, lethal for millions of years, in a densely populated area, adjacent to I-5 and the LA-to-San Diego rail corridor, just above a popular surfing beach, in an earthquake and tsunami zone, inches above the water table, and yards from the rising sea doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense from a public safety standpoint.

The near drop incident last August, revealed by a whistleblower, has drawn further attention to the many defects in the Holtec-designed and manufactured facility.  It has been discovered that the stainless steel canisters, only five-eights inches thick, are being damaged as they are lowered into the site’s concrete silos.  Experts have warned that the scratching or gouging that is occurring makes the thin-walled canisters even more susceptible to corrosion-induced cracking in the salty sea air, risking release of their deadly contents into the environment and even of hydrogen explosions.

Furthermore, critics point out, these thin-walled canisters are welded shut and cannot be inspected, maintained, monitored or repaired.

Systems analyst Donna Gilmore is the founder of SanOnofreSafety.org, and a leading critic of the Holtec system.  She explains her concerns this way in a recent email:

The root cause of the canister wall damage is the lack of a precision downloading system for the canisters.  Holtec’s NRC license requires no contact between the canister and the interior of the holes. The NRC admits Holtec is out of compliance with their license, but refuses to cite Holtec for this violation.

NRC staff said the scraping of the stainless steel thin canister walls against a protruding carbon steel canister guide ring also deposits carbon on the canisters, creating galvanic corrosion. The above ground Holtec system has long vertical carbon steel canister guide channels, creating similar problems.

Once canisters are scraped or corroded they start cracking. The NRC said once a crack starts it can grow through the wall in 16 years. In hotter canisters, crack growth rate can double for every 10 degree increase in temperature.

Each canister holds roughly the radioactivity of a Chernobyl nuclear disaster, so this is a critical issue people need to know about.

Unless these thin-wall canisters (only 1/2″ to 5/8″ thick) are replaced with thick-wall bolted lid metal casks – the standard in most of the world except the U.S. – none of us are safe. Thick-wall casks are 10″ to 19.75″ thick. Thick-wall casks survived the 2011 Fukushima 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

U.S. companies choose thin canisters due to short-term cost savings. These thin-wall pressure vessels can explode, yet have no pressure monitoring or pressure relief valves. The NRC gives many exemptions to ASME N3 Nuclear Pressure Vessel standards (a scandal in and of itself).

The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board December 2017 report to Congress raises concerns of hydrogen gas explosions in these canisters. The residual water in the canisters becomes radiated and results in buildup of hydrogen gas.

The gouged canister walls reduces the maximum pressure rating of these thin canisters, creating the perfect storm for a disaster.  Ironically, Holtec calls their system “HI-STORM”.

How many “Chernobyl disaster can” explosions can we afford? There are almost 3000 thin-wall canisters in the U.S.  Yet the NRC has no current plan in place to prevent or stop major radioactive releases or explosions.

Many are advocating that the San Onofre storage facility be moved to higher ground in thicker casks housed in more securely hardened structures.  Others are advocating for the waste to be shipped across country to New Mexico to a facility being proposed there by Holtec and a local group of entrepreneurs calling itself the Eddy-Lea Alliance.

Holtec International, a family-owned company, based in Camden, New Jersey, with mixed reviews from employees.  True to its name, the company has international ambitions for building small nuclear reactors (SMRs) and become dominant in the burgeoning global market of radioactive waste management.  It is working hard to convince the NRC and members of the public that concerns about its San Onofre ISFSI are over-blown and unfounded.

Holtec canisters are reportedly installed at three-dozen other reactor sites around the country, including Humboldt Bay in California.  Holtec is in the running, too, for a waste storage facility at the state’s Diablo Canyon nuclear site, scheduled for shutdown in 2025.

Holtec is also offering to buy four other US phased out nuclear power stations, – Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Pilgrim in Maine, Palisades in Michigan and Indian Point in New York.  As of this writing three of those proposed deals have yet to be approved, but on April 18, 2019, Holtec announced that it has closed the deal with Entergy to acquire the leaking and controversial Indian Point energy center just outside New York City after the last of its three reactors shuts down.

The pot of gold in the radioactive waste business is that, thanks to fees charged to ratepayers over the years, each plant has accumulated hundreds of billions of dollars in a decommissioning trust fund, which would all go to Holtec once the sales have been completed.

With Three Mile Island now scheduled for shutdown by the end of September, will Holtec attempt to buy TMI, as well?

The California – Chernobyl Connection

Holtec and its client Edison would have the public believe that the San Onofre ISFSI is top of the line, up to date and state-of-the-art spent fuel handling.  But that image seems to be contradicted by a recent Holtec press release and accompanying animated video that may seem to describe something like the kind of waste storage system many are advocating for at San Onofre.

On May 6, 2019, Holtec was “pleased to announce the start of final system-wide trials for Chernobyl’s dry store facility….” In the next two months, Holtec expects to complete “stem-to stern functional demonstrations of the [SF-2] spent fuel handling and storage processes before handing over the facility to Ukraine’s State owned enterprise Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP).”

The Holtec press release boasts, “Dismembering more than  21,000 RBMK spent fuel assemblies in a special purpose “hotcell,” packaging those fuel assemblies in double walled canisters(DWCs), and transferring them from (open) water-cooled pools into hermetically sealed rugged helium-filled storage systems inside ventilated modules will mark a huge safety milestone for Ukraine.”  https://youtu.be/GYR3GmkRZV0

Holtec is also building a project called a Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility (CSFSF) for the Ukrainian company Energoatom.  Holtec says the “CSFSF will employ double-confinement DWCs, the world’s first double-walled, double-lid multi-purpose canister system for dry storage of spent nuclear fuel.”

Many may now be asking, “Why isn’t what’s good for Ukraine, also good for California?”  But, Donna Gilmore points out that, “It’s a thin-wall canister system.  Exterior wall is 3/8″ thick.  Interior wall is 1/2″ thick.  Both welded shut.  Still must be stored in Holtec concrete cask with air vents.  Still cannot be inspected, maintained, monitored or repaired inside or out.”

Ruling Gives Go Ahead to Holtec New Mexico Project

On May 7, the Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gave the go-ahead to the NRC’s consideration of a pending license application from Holtec International/Eddy-Lea [Counties] Energy Alliance to store 173,600 metric tons of highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico.

The 142-page ASLB decision denied all 50 contentions contained in petitions from nearly a dozen organizations opposing the project and requesting a full public evidentiary hearing on its potential impacts.

Petitioners included Beyond Nuclear, Sierra Club, Don’t Waste Michigan, Alliance for Environmental Strategies; Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination (MI), Citizens’ Environmental Coalition (NY), San Luis Obispo Mother’s for Peace (CA), Nuclear Energy Information Service (IL), Public Citizen (TX), Nuclear Issues Study Group (NM).

In an unusual alliance with environmental groups, extractive industry groups the Texas-based Fasken Land and Minerals Ltd. and Georgia-based NAC International Inc. also filed petitions for a hearing, contending that the nuclear waste storage project threatens lucrative fracking operations in the booming Permian Basin.  The project is also widely opposed by Native American Tribes – already victimized by atom bomb testing and uranium mining – as well as ranchers and growers who fear water contamination and the boycotting of their products by suspicious consumers.

The region in which the proposed dump will be located is already known as Nuclear Alley, being home to the failed Waste Isolation Pilot Project(WIPP), the Urenco Nuclear Reprocessing Plant and the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) low-level waste site just across the border in Texas, which is also applying for a high-level waste storage license.

Opponents cite the likelihood that the Holtec/Eddy-Lea project – a below-grade ISFSI similar to the one at San Onofre – could and would be eventually expanded to accommodate spent fuel from aged reactors across the country as they are decommissioned in coming years, thus making the establishment of a permanent federal deep geological repository less urgent, and making New Mexico the de facto national dump.

They point out that over 200 million U.S. Citizens living along transportation routes would be placed in peril by the thousands of resulting shipments of highly radioactive waste being shipped cross country on the nation’s rickety rails, roads and bridges through major population areas.

According to Michael J. Keegan, an Intervenor with Don’t Waste Michigan, “The license application to construct and operate a ‘consolidated interim storage facility’ for spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico is a blatant violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA 1982, Amended 1987).  The entire application is contingent on the Department of Energy taking title to the spent nuclear fuel, this is forbidden by current law, unless it is a Permanent Repository.  Concealed from the Public is the true intent of Holtec International to store high level nuclear waste for 300 years.  This proposal is [for a] permanent high level nuclear waste dump and is again, a blatant violation of NWPA,” Keegan points out.

Holtec counsel Jay Silberg reportedly said during a January hearing that the plan would still be viable if utilities retain title to the waste in the case that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is not altered – as is now being attempted in Congress = or that a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain or elsewhere is not constructed.

“No less than Rick Perry, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, admitted a few weeks ago to a congressional committee that there is a distinct possibility that ‘interim storage’ sites like Holtec could become permanent, de facto spent nuclear fuel repositories for hundreds of years or even forever,” says Don’t Waste Michigan attorney Terry J. Lodge. “Holtec would have none of the safeguards and protections that were considered during the Yucca Mountain proceeding. If Holtec is allowed to build, there is a grave possibility that New Mexico will become the loser for all ages,” Lodge adds.

Mindy Goldstein, a lawyer for Beyond Nuclear comments, “Holtec, Beyond Nuclear, and the NRC all agree that a fundamental provision in the Holtec application violates the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Today, the Licensing Board decided that the violation did not matter. But, the Board cannot ignore the mandates of federal law.”

Goldstein adds that this is the second time the NRC has issued a decision overruling Beyond Nuclear’s objection to NRC consideration of the unlawful application, and that the group will continue to pursue a federal court appeal it filed on December 27, 2018.

Donna Gilmore comments, “This is another example of the NRC not protecting our safety.  The proposed Holtec New Mexico system is the same Holtec system used at San Onofre.  The NRC knows every canister downloaded into the Holtec storage holes is damaged the entire length of the canister due to the poorly engineered downloading system that lacks precision downloading. In spite of this gouging of thin canister walls (only 5/8″ thick), the NRC refuses to cite Holtec with a Notice of Violation.”

Gilmore concludes, “The NRC told the ASLB they have no problem with Holtec returning leaking canisters back to sender, yet neither the proposed New Mexico Holtec site nor the San Onofre site have a plan to deal with leaking canisters, let alone prevent radioactive leaks or hydrogen gas explosions.  We cannot trust the NRC to protect our safety.  It will be up to each state to stop this madness.”

The opposition groups have vowed to appeal.  San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace said in a statement, “These Mobile Chernobyls are fast tracked to take to the rail, roads, and waterways. Disregard for the current NWPA law by proceeding as if it does not exist is not acceptable.  This railroad of a ruling by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel will be appealed to the NRC Commission as prescribed by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).   Once these remedies have been exhausted appeal to federal courts is then in order.”

San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace Spokesperson Molly Johnson stateed, “The NRC again demonstrates that it has been fully captured by the industry it is charged to regulate. The NRC process is shamelessly designed to prevent the public from participating in decision-making.”

Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist for Beyond Nuclear, speaks for many when he says, “On behalf of our members and supporters in New Mexico, and across the country along the road, rail, and waterway routes in most states, that would be used to haul the high risk, high-level radioactive waste out West, we will appeal today’s bad ruling.”

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

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