Nuclear Waste Problem is the one which needs our small efforts to make everything go well
If you were an evil mastermind thinking where you could put all the nuclear waste problem that would really scare the bejeezus out of people. It is hard to think of one that’s worse than San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, just outside of San Clemente, California. It is been closed since 2013, but its operators are struggling with a problem that most plants in America share; all the spent nuclear fuel it ever generated is still trapped. The thing which is being noticed immediately about the plant is its location right by the side of Pacific Ocean. The Interstate Five Freeway is just over the hill, L.A., and San Diego only within 75 miles, and 8.5 million people living in the area, and exactly, in the centre of it all is tons and tons of nuclear waste. Back when it was running, the San Onofre plant could power 1.4 million homes at a time. But, now the reactors are retired and the plant operator, Southern California Edison, is preparing to dismantle it completely. Except for all of the security and the Manager of Environmental Decommissioning Strategy, the plant is all empty.
The plant hasn’t produced electricity for years, ever since one of the steam generators sprung a leak. It is a done deal; SoCal Edison is tired of waiting to reopen the troubled San Onofre power plant. The utility announced already that it is shutting down for good. Now, the plant operators need to decontaminate the site, demolish the structures, tearing everything to the ground. But before that, something needs to be done with all the fuel. Fresh fuel isn’t actually all that radioactive but gets more radioactive after it spends time in a nuclear reactor, because chain reaction that generates heat also makes other radioactive atoms, like Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and Plutonium-239. About half of the Cesium and Strontium decay in 30 or so years while the Plutonium takes longer, like 24,000 years. These days, the spent fuel starts cooling off in cement-lined pools of water. After a few years, it is moved to dry storage, air-cooled steel containers inside massive concrete blocks. Eventually, they will move all the waste into those blocks. They are low in maintenance and are supposed to withstand floods, earthquakes, tornados, aeroplane collisions. It requires no pumps or active systems to support it. As long as we keep this inlet and outlet free of any debris or blockage, the system will continue to operate which is good because that is where the spent fuel is going to have to stay for the foreseeable future.
What we are facing here is a national problem. Every commercial plant in the States is faced with the same problem. There is nothing to do with the fuel because the federal government is not performing. San Onofre’s first reactor powered up in 1968, at the height of nuclear energy’s prime, and the height of the energy industry selling America on how safe and powerful it was. The heat output of one pound of Uranium can equal the heat output of 70 tonnes of coal. There were promises that one day, atomic energy would be too cheap to meter, that it would power the world by the year 2000. But, for all that promise, there just wasn’t a solid plan for the waste. That could be only possible if there was an argument well before building nuclear power plants, but by this time, the horse is already out of the barn. In short, the spent nuclear fuel stays at San Onofre is because the federal government has dropped the ball. For decades, the plan has been to bury the waste underground. The government was supposed to start accepting spent fuel in 1998, and the site it settled on was Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. The plan was stuck in limbo for decades due to different political opinions, and nuclear power companies have been using the government for missing that deadline. Meanwhile, nuclear plants keep operating and produce about 20% of America’s electricity and 2200 tonnes of waste each year.
There are a few ways out of this situation with some movement in Congress to restart Yucca Mountain, and the Trump administration is in favour of that. The talks are also going on about consolidated interim storage. They are even talking about moving the waste to higher ground near the plant, but farther from the sea. There are all these different permutations out there that are basically put everything up in the air. But, in the meantime, the waste is going to sit there, in that concrete fuel morgue on the coast.