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By Shawn Raymundo

More than $20 million in funding to establish an interim storage program for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel from power plants was recently included in a congressional appropriations bill, Rep. Mike Levin, D-CA, announced this month.

The bill’s inclusion of $25 million to create a “robust consolidated interim storage program” could offer a pathway to begin removing spent nuclear fuel from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

According to Levin, who advocated for the funding, $10 million would go toward the initiation of the storage program, another $10 million would be used for site preparation activities, and the remaining $5 million would be designated for coordinating the transportation of the spent fuel.

“So what (the bill) says is the (Department of Energy) now has $25 million to site, permit and license interim storage facilities,” Levin told The Capistrano Dispatch following a meeting he held with constituents in San Clemente on Wednesday, May 29.

Canisters wrapped in plastic await to be filled with nuclear fuel rods containing spent nuclear fuel at a SONGS loading area. Photo: Cari Hachmann
Canisters wrapped in plastic await to be filled with nuclear fuel rods containing spent nuclear fuel at a SONGS loading area. Photo: Cari Hachmann

Power plants in the U.S. have been forced to store nuclear waste on site, as the nation doesn’t have a permanent repository for such fuel.

The federal government’s plans to establish Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent storage site has been stuck in legislative gridlock since 2010, when the Obama administration cut funding for the project.

Interim sites in Lea County, New Mexico and Andrews County, Texas have been proposed and are currently going through the application process, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

However, in New Mexico, where Holtec International is looking to construct a storage facility potentially capable of holding up to 100,000 metric tons of material, there has been pushback from local groups, according to news reports.

Pending enactment of the appropriations bill, Levin said his hope is that the storage program will “be done on a consent-based approach, meaning that local communities would be engaged.”

“Obviously, we don’t want to advance interim storage sites in part of the country where they’re not welcome by local stakeholders, so I’ll look forward to working with my friends in different states,” Levin said. “I know there’s a lot of political resistance in some parts of the country. It’s not our intent to move forward with any site that faces such resistance, but rather to find sites that have the consent of the local community.”

In regard to the proposed site in west Texas, Levin noted that there’s momentum behind that project with the help of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the state’s former governor.

“As a former governor of Texas, he has a direct knowledge of some of the attitudes there,” Levin said.

Levin has staunchly supported efforts to get the spent fuel out of SONGS. In April, he introduced legislation meant to give the local power plant priority when it comes to the DOE determining which location can begin offloading waste first.

He’s also put together a SONGS task force that’s designed to come up with technical and legislative recommendations for transporting and storing the nation’s nuclear waste.

After speaking with The Dispatch on Wednesday, Levin and some members of his task force were scheduled to meet with Southern California Edison at SONGS, where he planned on asking “tough questions” regarding the safety of canisters used to contain spent nuclear fuel.

Earlier this month, the NRC gave Edison the go-ahead to restart loading its spent fuel into dry storage at SONGS. However, SCE has not yet determined when it will officially resume loading operations.

Edison and its contractor, Holtec, ceased transfer operations after a canister incident occurred last August. During the incident, a canister carrying spent fuel was being lowered into a vertical receptacle but wasn’t aligned properly, causing it to get stuck on a guiding ring.

Since the NRC’s decision, Levin has raised concerns, stating that there are still safety aspects that haven’t yet been addressed, including his request for the commission to implement a full-time inspector with oversight of the fuel-loading process at the plant.

“My other concern is we still have not received any assurance from the NRC that we’ll have a full-time inspector, which I think is needed,” he said. “I’d like to see a full-time inspector on site.”

Levin said he also planned on inquiring about Edison’s timetable to begin downloading the spent fuel into canisters for dry storage. In a press release on the congressman’s response to the NRC’s latest decision, Levin was leery of the commission basing its assessment on “data provided by Edison, a company with an incentive to resume loading as quickly as possible.”

Officials with Edison have said they conducted dry runs during the hiatus in an effort to upgrade and improve loading procedures. They’ve also emphasized to The Dispatch that when operations officially resume, the plan is to load one canister a week.
SR_1Shawn Raymundo
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.

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