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By Shawn Raymundo
Attorneys representing Southern California Edison and its contractor believe Public Watchdogs’ lawsuit against the San Onofre power plant operator should be dismissed because the group’s members haven’t suffered any harm or injury as a result of exposure to radioactive material from the power plant.
The nonprofit advocacy group, which has vehemently opposed Edison’s handling of nuclear waste at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), filed a lawsuit in August that seeks to temporarily halt SCE’s transfer of spent fuel from wet storage into a dry storage facility.
Edison, the majority owner of SONGS, and minority stakeholder San Diego Gas & Electric are named in the lawsuit in federal court, as are Holtec International, which designed the canisters used to transport and contain the waste, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
In its complaint, Public Watchdogs lobs several allegations against the group of stakeholders, calling Holtec’s canisters “thin-walled” and “defective” while claiming that Edison is “dropping them into holes dug into the beach.”
“Due to the Defendants’ mismanagement and mishandling of the nuclear waste, the design and manufacturing defects of the Holtec canisters, and the dangerous burial site, there is an imminent danger that the canisters will fail, releasing deadly nuclear waste into the surrounding area and causing catastrophic harm to the environment,” Public Watchdog’s initial complaint stated.
Watchdogs recently filed an amended version of the complaint to the court, further charging that the “resulting harm to California residents is not speculative.” Citing the Price-Anderson Act, a federal law governing public liability actions involving nuclear incidents, the group decries that the use of the canisters could have “calamitous consequences.”
Edison’s and Holtec’s attorneys have disputed that claim, noting that the Act was meant “compensate for actual injury sustained in a nuclear accident that causes the release of radiation in excess of federal limits.”
Public Watchdogs’ claim, SCE’s attorneys further state, “fails as a matter of law because” the group “does not allege that it (or anybody else) has suffered any ‘bodily injury, sickness, disease, or death, or loss of or damage to property, or loss of use of property, arising out of or resulting from the radioactive, toxic, explosive, or other hazardous properties of source, special nuclear, or byproduct material.’ ’’
SONGS was decommissioned in 2013. Like all nuclear power plant operators in the country, Edison has been forced to store its own radioactive waste on site, as the nation doesn’t have a permanent repository for such material.
The federal government’s plan 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 NRC, the federal government’s independent regulatory arm on nuclear energy.
The NRC has also drawn criticism from Public Watchdogs, which claims that the federal agency “has a history of abdicating its regulatory and supervisory responsibilities over the nuclear industry.”
It goes on to challenge the NRC’s approval of Edison’s license amendment to decommission the plant and states that the stakeholders actually intended to turn SONGS into a “long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel.”
Public Watchdogs later slams the decommissioning plan, as it involves the “burial” of the waste in Edison’s Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation that “is improvidently located in a tsunami inundation zone, between two seismic fault lines, and a mere 108 feet from the Pacific Ocean.”
The Holtec canisters onsite are 5/8-inches thick. Public Watchdogs notes in its lawsuit that “many international nuclear decommissioning projects employ thick-walled dry casks with anywhere between 9- and 18-inch thick walls.”
The legal response from Edison’s lawyers points out that the NRC’s approval for SCE to use Holtec’s canisters for storage was based on technical evaluations the agency conducted and subsequently determined to meet durability standards.
“The NRC will approve only those systems that meet its stringent requirements and can perform safely,” Edison’s attorneys stated.
A hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 7 in a San Diego courtroom to deliberate Edison’s and Holtec’s motion for the case to be dismissed.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times and the former 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.