By Eric Heinz

An organization that scrutinizes government activity is making a last effort to prevent the storage of spent nuclear fuel rods at San Onofre.

Public Watchdogs, a nonprofit organization based in La Mesa, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Nov. 15 against the United States government, the Department of Defense and Secretary James Mattis, as well as Southern California Edison (SCE), the operators of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE) to prevent the storage of more than 3.6 million pounds of radioactive fuel rods.

The lawsuit claims that under Public Law 88-82, a declaration from 1963 that allows the secretary of the Navy to authorize a permit for the nuclear power plant, storage of the spent nuclear waste was not authorized in the law.

The Navy owns the land where SONGS and Camp Pendleton are established.

Public Watchdogs is seeking an injunction that would find the “storage of spent nuclear fuel at SONGS is not authorized by, and is outside the scope of the authority granted to the Federal Defendants under, Public Law 88-82,” as well as “an order or judgment enjoining Federal Defendants from authorizing SCE and SDGE from storing spent nuclear fuel at SONGS and further enjoining SCE and SDGE from storing spent fuel at SONGS.”

Charles Langley, the executive director of Public Watchdogs, said the goal of the lawsuit is to stop the storage of spent nuclear fuel at SONGS before the process of moving it to the dry cask storage begins before the end of this year.

“I expect an injunction that prohibits the burial of waste at San Onofre,” Langley said on Nov. 16. “Edison promised they would start burying the spent fuel in December…and they’ve accelerated their schedule instead of (starting) in 2018 as they originally planned.”

Langley referenced a legal settlement between Southern California Edison and another watchdog organization, Citizens’ Oversight Projects, that required the utility company to establish a plan to move the fuel and additional safety procedures, but it doesn’t hold the operators to specific timelines regarding when the fuel can be stored.

The settlement was based on a lawsuit filed by Citizens’ Oversight after the California Coastal Commission issued a permit in 2015 for Edison to store the spent nuclear fuel, after the federal government could not find a place for it. The fuel was originally intended to be stored at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, before that site was shuttered.

Critics at public meetings hosted by Edison, local municipal representatives and other organizations—known as Community Engagement Panel—have said they don’t believe the fuel will be safely stored in the casks and could be vulnerable to erosion over time and seismic activity. The casks were designed and constructed by Holtec International.

“…(I)f a container storing spent fuel were to break open due to mishandling or due to corrosion caused by the proximity to salt-heavy ocean air and moisture, tens of thousands of people within 50 miles of SONGS could be exposed to levels of radiation that would cause imminent death,” the lawsuit claims.

A hearing for the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California, has not yet been scheduled, Langley said.

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