Environmental Activists Suggest Dumping Nuclear Waste in National Monument

The shuttered San Onofrre Nuclear Generating Station, focus of a controversy over spent fuel storage | Photo: Ken Lund, some rights reserved
The shuttered San Onofrre Nuclear Generating Station, focus of a controversy over spent fuel storage | Photo: Ken Lund, some rights reserved

Commentary: A community watchdog group in El Cajon has been discussing a solution to the problem of storing spent fuel from the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station: Stick it in Mojave Trails National Monument.

The group Citizen Oversight, which has advocated that San Onofre be shut down since well before the plant’s closure was announced in July, 2013, has suggested a remote spot in San Bernardino County’s Cadiz Valley as what the group calls a temporary storage site for San Onofre’s 1,800-ton stockpile of used fuel rods and other waste. The location, at an abandoned railroad outpost called Fishel, California, is directly on the boundary between the Mojave Trails National Monument and the Old Woman Mountains Wilderness, and just 17 miles from the boundary of Joshua Tree National Park.

The group has begun to back away from its proposal, which it made public in 2015. Nonetheless, that proposal is gaining new attention as opposition mounts to a plan to keep the waste onsite at San Onofre. And according to a report by the community newspaper the San Bernardino County Sentinel, the option of dumping San Onofre’s waste in Mojave Trails is being taken seriously by some in the nearby city of San Clemente — even as the Sentinel’s coverage seems to have prompted Citizen Oversight to back away from its suggestion.

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A Little Radiation Background

Unit 2 of the controversial San Onofre nuclear power plant, long a landmark along the northern San Diego County coast, was shut down in January 2012 for routine refueling and maintenance. Shortly thereafter, the plant’s Unit 3 was shut down after what regulators eventually described as a small leak vented measurable levels of radioactive material into the environment. Inspections showed that steam generators installed in both units in 2011 showed premature wear in 15,000 different places. That summer, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it would not allow restart of either unit until the operators, a consortium of utilities with Southern California Edison (SCE) as managing partner, could guarantee the plant could be operated safely.

SCE proposed to restart Unit 2 for operation at reduced power as a stopgap safety measure, but the federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board shot down that idea in May 2013. SCE then announced in June 2013 that San Onofre would never start up again.

The fate of the spent fuel rods and other radioactive material from San Onofre has been a hot issue since then. In October 2015, the California Coastal Commission, after a series of closed meetings with SCE, granted a permit for an on-site “temporary” storage facility, or Independent Spent Fuel Storage Facility (ISFSI), for the plant’s high-level radioactive waste in the southwest corner of the site, which the long-decommissioned Unit 1 had once occupied. The permit was good for 20 years, the hope being that the federal government would have its long-awaited long-term nuclear waste storage plan up and running by the time the permit expired.

A storage pool for spent fuel at San Onofre | Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
A storage pool for spent fuel at San Onofre | Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

SCE had already been moving its spent fuel on site from a storage pool — a risky storage method — into the theoretically safer dry casks covered in the permit, with the understanding that if the feds ever approved a permanent storage facility, San Onofre’s spent fuel would be heading to that facility as soon as safely possible. SCE’s goal even before the Coastal Commission granted the permit was to have all spent fuel rods out of wet storage and into dry casks on site by 2019.

It’s worth noting that the on-site dry cask storage strategy won conditional support from a number of environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, Orange County Coastkeeper, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. None were in favor of long-term spent fuel storage onsite, but they argued that removing the spent fuel from wet storage was imperative, and that off-site storage would likely take years to arrange.

“Years” may be an understatement. Though the federal government designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent nuclear waste storage site in 1987, stiff opposition and shifting federal priorities have kept that site from opening, and even if Donald Trump steamrolls that opposition, it will be many years before that site can begin accepting waste. A low-level radioactive waste dump in West Texas is attempting to upgrade its license to accept spent fuel from power plants, but that change is by no means a done deal. Even if it’s approved, the site will only hold 40 tons of spent fuel. That’s two percent of San Onofre’s stockpile, which nuclear plant operators across the West will be fighting to fill.

On-site dry cask storage is thus generally seen as the safest temporary option for handling spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. But the Commission’s unanimous decision to allow temporary dry cask storage on the San Onofre site raised howls of protest from locals. Citizen Oversight responded to that decision by suing SCE and the Coastal Commission in November, 2015, demanding that the Commission reconsider its permit and that SCE find another location for San Onofre’s spent fuel. Citizen Oversight proposed a few alternative locations for the spent fuel: at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant west of Phoenix, on the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, and at Fishel.

Just a Spot on the Map Where Nobody Lives

In 2015, Citizen Oversight crafted a report on its “Fishel Proposal,” which remains posted on its website. In the report, the group suggested that an as-yet undetermined location near Fishel would likely be the best location for semi-permanent ISFSI storage of San Onofre’s highly radioactive spent fuel, as well as spent fuel from Diablo Canyon, and perhaps UC Davis’ McClellan Research Reactor as well.

On the most superficial level, Citizen Oversight’s choice of Fishel as a potential “interim” storage site is understandable. The area is sparsely populated — Citizen Oversight characterized it as "just a spot on the map rather than a place where anyone lives"  — but accessible by rail, and the site’s extreme aridity might inhibit corrosion of the casks’ metal liners — though the Cadiz Valley’s extreme temperatures might well undo that difference.

That rail accessibility might well concern residents of some of SoCal’s largest cities. Shipping spent fuel from San Onofre to Fishel would send the waste through Riverside, San Bernardino, and the crowded Cajon Pass into Victorville and Barstow, before heading into Mojave Trails National Monument.

Citizen Oversight’s plan was built on the assumption that wastes from these reactors would be stored in dry casks similar to ones designed by Holtec International, whose components are warranted not to leak for time periods ranging between 10 and 25 years, and which a manufacturer’s representative admits cannot be easily repaired when they begin to leak. Holtec’s casks are considered by many South Coast residents to be too unreliable for use at San Onofre, but the report contains little in the way of concern about their reliability when placed in the desert.

Start sifting further through the details of the proposal, and things quickly get surreal.

The Ship Mountains seen from the Cadiz Road a few miles from Fishel | Photo: Chris Clarke
The Ship Mountains seen from the Cadiz Road a few miles from Fishel | Photo: Chris Clarke

Missing the Wilderness

The group‘s contention that there are no nearby wildernesses or preserves may well be the most egregious of the errors in the document. The report was drafted in 2015, so its original draft could reasonably be excused for failing to mention the Mojave Trails National Monument established there in February 2016. But the 165,172-acre Old Woman Mountains Wilderness, whose border with the Mojave Trails National Monument runs right through Fishel, was established in 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act. The 19,935-acre Cadiz Dunes Wilderness, six miles northwest of Fishel, was established by that same piece of legislation in 1994, as was the 188,169-acre Sheephole Valley Wilderness 11 miles west of Fishel.

Wilderness map included in the Fishel Proposal | Map: Citizen Oversight
Wilderness map included in the Fishel Proposal. Not shown: Old Woman Mountains, Turtle Mountains, Cadiz Dunes, Sheephole Valley, Cleghorn Lakes, Clipper Mountains, Stepladder Mountains, Marble Mountains, Palen McCoy, and Bigelow Cholla Garden wildernesses within 35 miles of Fishel, along with the Mojave National Preserve and Mojave Trails National Monument. | Map: Citizen Oversight

In a discussion of soil types apparently based entirely on use of Google Earth, Citizen Oversight allows that the light-colored soils around Fishel are probably alluvium, and that the nearby Turtle Mountains may offer a better location for a nuke dump:

More research would also determine that the vast majority of the Turtle Mountains are protected as the 177,309-acre Turtle Mountains Wilderness, established with all the others in the neighborhood in 1994.

This official map of Mojave Trails National Monument shows the wilderness areas near the Fishel site. | Map: BLM, With Fishel location added by KCET
This official map of Mojave Trails National Monument shows the wilderness areas near the Fishel site. | Map: BLM; Fishel location added by KCET

Other errors of similar magnitude pepper the document, from a misunderstanding of Native concerns over the nuclear waste dump proposed for nearby Ward Valley in the 1990s, to omission of any mention of the Cadiz, Inc. proposal to ship water from the aquifer beneath Fishel to coastal cities, to the statement that the area lacks seismic activity — which Citizen Oversight walked back somewhat after learning of the existence of Amboy Crater in 2017.

Screencap of December 2009 L.A. Times story covering Mojave Trails proposal
Screen capture of December 2009 L.A. Times story covering Mojave Trails proposal

Most startling of all is the failure to mention the Mojave Trails National Monument. Though the Monument hadn’t been designated when the first version of Citizen Oversight’s proposal was released in August 2015, the monument had been a very prominent proposal being coaxed through Congress by Senator Dianne Feinstein for six years before that.

Though the proposal was updated twice after the designation of Mojave Trails National Monument — first to make the above-mentioned suggestion that Cadiz might be a better location, and secondly after the authors learned on a field trip of the existence of Mojave Trails’ best known natural landmark, Amboy Crater, and noted that possible volcanism might undermine their suggestion — none of the updates mentioned Mojave Trails National Monument, despite the authors’ having had to pass the Monument’s welcome signs on the field trip in which they discovered Amboy Crater.

If criticism of these mistakes seems unduly picky, remember this: Citizen Oversight’s Fishel proposal is a document that suggests a location for storage of nuclear waste that will be highly radioactive for a length of time about twice as long as recorded human history, and “hot” enough to be sensibly avoided for perhaps 60 times longer. The stakes for such a project mean that any suggested location deserves examination far more thorough and conscientious than this.

Amboy Crater | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM
Amboy Crater | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM

Still, Citizen Oversight’s Fishel proposal wouldn’t merit much more than an eye-roll were it not for the fact that it seems to be gaining public support.

At a May 2 meeting of the San Clemente City Council, a number of members of the public mentioned storage sites they preferred for San Onofre’s spent fuel. Several specifically mentioned San Bernardino County as an option, according to an account by Needles resident Ruth Musser-Lopez that was cited by the San Bernardino County Sentinel.

The minutes of that meeting don’t refer specifically to the Fishel proposal, but they do contain this addition to a letter from the San Clemente City Council to the California Coastal Commission:

Citizen Oversight Drops the Fishel Idea, But the Cat is Out of the Bag

It would be unfair to criticize Citizen Oversight's Fishel proposal without pointing out that the group seems to have dropped it as an objective. On May 14, one week after the San Bernardino County Sentinel ran its story on the San Clemente City Council meeting, Citizen Oversight quietly repudiated its Fishel proposal on its website, adding a passage to the proposal page that read:

That language expanded upon an earlier statement appended to the proposal in March, in which Citizen Oversight suggested that issues with the Fishel site had led them to conclude that siting nuclear waste storage there was "not a slam-dunk and requires substantial additional review."

The group nonetheless maintained in its May 14 update that Fishel remained a more suitable site for the waste than its current location at San Onofre. And while the group has indeed quietly backed away from its proposal, that proposal remains a widely distributed part of the public record, with Citizen Oversight's most recent remarks restricted to a relatively obscure section of its website.

The damage may be done. With an increasing number of San Onofre's neighbors suddenly aware of the idea of moving the plant's spent fuel to the Mojave, the spent fuel train may already have left the station, despite Citizen Oversight's laudable retraction.

In ordinary political contexts, nuclear waste storage at Fishel, or at any number of similar places in the California desert, would almost certainly be a non-starter. Especially at Fishel, proposed by an organization that didn’t bother to learn that their proposed site is sandwiched between a wilderness and a National Monument, a proposal would ordinarily get laughed out of the Bureau of Land Management field office.

Since January 20, 2017, however, ordinary political contexts have been receding fast in our nation's rear-view mirror.

We are in a context in which the Mojave Trails National Monument is already up for an unprecedented and likely illegal “review” by the Interior Department, and that Interior Department has been ordered to green-light any number of highly destructive projects on public land to benefit the energy industry. The Fishel proposal might reduce billions of dollars in liability risk for a large corporation, and would likely gain wide support among NIMBYish coastal Californians. It could therefore prove a convenient tool for the Trump administration to rescind monument designation for Mojave Trails.

And though Citizen Oversight was cautious in its proposal to suggest that the state of California might best restrict Fishel’s use to waste from reactors inside the state, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the feds under Trump wouldn’t ignore that restriction, given that the site is federally managed public land.

If we’ve learned anything in the last four months, it is that there is no scheme so hare-brained that the administration won’t support it. As devoid of factual justification as the Fishel proposal is, desert protection activists would be unwise to write it off as preposterous the way they might have when Citizen Oversight first floated it in 2015.

And Speaking of Desert Activists…

Of course, even if the idea of dumping San Onofre waste in San Bernardino County gains more powerful backers, it’s not a done deal. Aside from whetever truncated Trump-era environmental review to which the project would be subject, it’ll also have to get past those above-mentioned desert activists.

Quechan Lightning Singers and dancers at front line of occupiers blocking police from entering Ward Valley, February 13, 1998. | Photo: Greenaction.
Quechan Lightning Singers and dancers at front line of occupiers blocking police from entering Ward Valley, February 13, 1998. | Photo: Greenaction

These are activists that have stopped a LADWP transmission line that seemed inevitable. They have slowed a massive federal solar development initiative to a near halt. Activism by desert Native peoples, with support from their non-Native neighbors, killed a nuclear waste dump proposal that had been backed by both the state and federal governments. If not for Mojave Desert activists, people in coastal southern California would already be drinking water from the same Cadiz aquifer above which Citizen Oversight would perch tons of high-level radioactive waste. Desert activists have killed landfills, changed wildlife trapping laws statewide, and fought to establish one of the densest clusters of national parks, preserves, and monuments precisely to protect the landscape against proposals like Citizen Oversight’s.

Overlooking the existence of those desert activists might well be the biggest error Citizen Oversight made in crafting its proposal to store nuclear waste in California’s largest National Monument. The only apparent consideration of locals in the proposal is discussion of a labor supply for the nuclear waste dump, not of people who might be every bit as harmed by the spent fuel's proximity as concerned householders in San Clemente — and certainly not as a potential core of skilled and motivated opposition.

It is very likely that Citizen Oversight’s proposal will go nowhere, especially now that the group has officially withdrawn its support. But even if the Fishel proposal is too far-fetched even for the likes of Donald Trump, it’s still bad news.

The Mojave and its sibling deserts include the largest expanses of undeveloped wildlife habitat in the Lower 48. Despite a century of abuse ranging from illegal off-road vehicle use to above-ground nuclear testing, heir ecosystems are essentially intact. As the widespread support for Barack Obama’s National Monument designation reminds us, millions of Americans cherish the deserts for their beauty, their uninterrupted horizons, their solace and refuge.

The support for Citizen Oversight’s proposal, though, reminds us that there are still some who see the desert primarily as a wasteland, a disposal site of choice for their unpleasant refuse, a place to which coastal elites can banish risks which they are too precious to themselves endure. And against that kind of disregard, all who care about the desert must be forever vigilant.




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