Physicians’ Organization Objects to San Onofre Deal: Edison Settlement Increases Health and Security Risks

Contact: Denise Duffield, 213-689-9170 office, 310-339-9676 cell, [email protected]

A deal struck today between Citizens’ Oversight and Southern California Edison encouraging the utility to use its efforts to relocate the highly irradiated spent nuclear fuel may dramatically increase health and security risks for communities in Southern California and the Southwestern United States.

With the exception of one option (on Camp Pendleton away from the beach) all potential sites could make matters worse. And they would require transporting the waste twice, once to the temporary location and then again to a permanent facility, essentially doubling the transport risk.

“Our review of the transport routes possible indicates that moving the fuel from San Onofre would entail transporting it through highly populated areas of Orange County or San Diego, where an accident or terrorist event could be devastating,” said Denise Duffield, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-:LA.)

PSR-LA agrees with the widespread view that Southern California Edison’s plan to bury the waste on the beach is inappropriate, given the risk of sea level rise and the daunting problem of protecting it from terrorist attack in such an accessible location.

However, a core principle of environmental protection, as of medicine, is “first, do no harm.” We must take great care to be sure that alternatives do not increase rather than decrease risks. Most of the alternatives suggested in the deal may in fact do harm, and potentially worsen rather than diminish safety.

A second core principle is to not do unto others that which one doesn’t wish done to oneself. Yes, we wish there were no spent fuel in the San Onofre area, that the people of Southern California were not faced with the risk from it. But transferring that risk to people in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, or Nevada is not on its face appropriate. Were people in those states to propose sending their irradiated fuel to San Onofre, for example, Californians would understandably be opposed.


U.S. nuclear waste policy has been broken for decades. The original Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the identification of a large number of candidate sites for a repository, to be examined scientifically to narrow the list to the two best sites, given geological characteristics, with the highest likelihood of retaining the waste over the extremely long periods for which it is dangerous. On the other hand, it continued the federal pre-emption of nuclear matters, essentially barring states from having any say.

Politics immediately entered the picture and the act’s requirement to examine numerous potential sites in the eastern and western parts of the U.S. and pick the best site geologically was jettisoned. Instead, because Nevada at that time had very little political clout in Washington, the other states got their states removed from consideration entirely and the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was designated as the sole one site to evaluate, with the proviso that if it turned out to be unsuitable, the process would begin again for a new site.

Quickly the science demonstrated Yucca was unsuitable. Rather than being dry, large amounts of water were discovered within the mountain where the waste would go. That water was also discovered to infiltrate and migrate quickly. Nuclear waste would be corroded by water which could carry the radioactivity long distances. The plan was eventually abandoned, because of the scientific flaws in the proposal.

Current Push to Reopen Yucca Mountain Project and to Establish Consolidated Interim Storage

Now, however, there is a concerted effort by the nuclear industry and others to reopen the Yucca Mountain project and simultaneously move to establish “interim” consolidated storage sites. The two prime candidates have been a controversial “low level” radioactive waste site in Texas and a site across the border in New Mexico, near the Waste Isolation Pilot Project that recently failed, with an underground explosion and fire that resulted in plutonium being released into the atmosphere. There is significant opposition to either location becoming an interim storage site.

Potential sites listed in the deal include moving San Onofre’s waste to the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona or to Ward Valley or some nearby location in eastern California. Ward Valley was proposed decades ago as a “low level” waste site, triggering a long and furious fight, in part due to its apparent hydrologic connection to the nearby Colorado River, the main water source for much of the Southwest. State law now bars its consideration for waste disposal. And the Palo Verde plant has numerous potential problems as well. These include the use of a different storage design and a history of terrorist threats. Palo Verde is closer to downtown Phoenix than San Onofre is to downtown San Diego.

The national environmental community opposes the efforts to establish consolidated interim storage and to reopen the Yucca project. “Interim” runs the risk of becoming permanent, as there is diminished incentive to come up with a scientifically defensible long term solution; if there is a permanent repository, as there needs to be, one would have to move the waste twice, increasing the transport risks. There is concern that an agreement to send San Onofre waste to interim consolidated storage would be used by nuclear proponents to further push for these destructive national policies.

A Reasonable Alternative

PSR-LA believes there is only one sensible alternative that should be examined thoroughly. Right now the spent fuel is on land leased from the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton. Serious consideration should be given to a different location on Pendleton away from the ocean and at a higher elevation.This could have numerous benefits. It would address the issue of sea level rise. It would dramatically increase the ability to protect the spent fuel from a terrorist attack. The current location is easily accessible, including by sea, with ready public access to very close to the facility. One of the greatest risks associated with irradiated fuel is terrorism; it is hard to think of a better location to protect it that further within a Marine base. The issues associated with the cask and facility design should also be reviewed, to determine the best possible cask and physical array.

PSR-LA is concerned that an agreement to ship San Onofre waste elsewhere for consolidated interim storage may increase rather than decrease safety risks. It would merely entail putting that risk on someone else, an ethically fraught proposition. It would require transporting the waste twice, doubling the risk of accident or terrorist attack. It would undercut environmental efforts nationally for a sensible national policy. While we agree that the proposal to bury the waste on the beach is troubling, the alternatives of dumping it on some other state area also troubling, and we believe the Pendleton alternative identified above should be the focus of serious consideration.

PSR-LA has grave concerns about shipping San Onofre’s waste to a consolidated interim storage site elsewhere. One must first do no harm, and also not do unto others that which we don’t want done to ourselves.


Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA) is the largest chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the American recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

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