The nuclear waste crisis

San Onofre, like all other nuclear power reactors, produces radioactive nuclear waste. The most hazardous waste at the San Onofre site is the irradiated fuel that is removed from the reactors every 22 months or so during refueling, also called spent fuel. Spent fuel is highly dangerous: Human exposure to an unshielded container would prove fatal. Other dangerous fission products are contained within the spent fuel – particularly caesium and plutonium, among many others.

As a result of operating 104 commercial nuclear reactors in the United States over the past four decades, the nation has accumulated more than 62,000 tons of spent fuel. Plans to reprocess this material and to use the plutonium in a generation of fast-breeder reactors have failed at every level. The alternative proposal, which was enacted into law in the 1980's, was to establish an underground geological repository. Despite spending billions of dollars over the past two decades, the proposed spent-fuel repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was rightfully abandoned by the Obama administration in 2010, and no acceptable replacement site has yet been identified. The Yucca site, located in an earthquake zone, had proven to be unsuitable in terms of preventing the migration of dangerous radionuclides into the environment over the many thousands of years required for safe storage.

In spite of the failure of reprocessing and geological disposal, the nuclear industry has continued to produce nuclear waste spent fuel for which it has no long-term solution – or even a safe short-term plan of action.

A large proportion of the nuclear spent fuel in the United States is stored in pools of water inside and/or next to the reactors. These require constant cooling due to the heat generated from the waste. The results of cooling failure – known for decades by the nuclear industry, regulators, and critics – was vividly demonstrated at the Fukushima-daiichi site in Japan in 2011, when the cooling systems for the spent-fuel pools at four reactors, storing hundreds of tons of spent fuel, failed. It was the risk posed by these pools in particular that led the Japanese prime minister to consider the evacuation of tens of millions of people. Even in October 2012 – more than 18 months after the site first erupted – the risk of catastrophic failure of the Fukushima spent-fuel pools poses one of the greatest hazards to Japan’s safety and well-being.

For more than four decades, San Onofre has been producing spent fuel for which it has no solution, accumulating at the plant in pools and storage casks.

The hazards are so great with spent fuel that there is no risk-free solution. Friends of the Earth, however, supports the position proposed by several national environmental groups across the nation:

  • Stop the production of spent fuel by phasing out nuclear power.
  • Move the nuclear waste from vulnerable spent-fuel pools to hardened dry casks as soon as possible.