Surfer Magazine: Meet the Congressman with a Plan to Move San O’s Nuclear Waste

June 13, 2019
In The News

Congressman Mike Levin represents California’s 49th district, arguably one of the finest in the country, with the 49th stretching from San Juan Capistrano down to La Jolla and encompassing miles of beautiful coastline, dozens of quality waves and…3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste.

That last part has long been a concern for residents of the 49th, which is probably one of the main reasons they voted for Levin in the 2018 election. Levin, a Democrat from San Juan who previously worked as an attorney on environmental issues, made it clear during his campaign that he’d make moving the spent nuclear fuel sitting onsite at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) a top priority if elected (for more on the nuclear waste, how it got there and why it hasn’t moved already, click here). Now, about 6 months into his first term, Levin has introduced a bill to the House that would expedite the removal of San O’s nuclear waste, as well as an appropriations bill to fund the search for a repository for the waste—although that’s not to say the road to moving San O’s waste is going to be easy or straightforward.

I recently spoke with Levin over the phone to talk about why he’s made moving San O’s nuclear waste one of his top priorities in Congress and why he’s hopeful that progress can be made despite years of political gridlock on the issue.

Nuclear waste was one of the key issues you ran on in 2018. Why is that issue so important to you and, considering how slowly the legislative gears have turned over the years in finding a home for the country’s nuclear waste, what makes you think you’ll be able to move that ball forward?

Well, I grew up in south Orange County and I live about 15 minutes from San Onofre—in fact, I drive past SONGS almost every day when I’m home because my district encompasses south Orange County and north San Diego County, and SONGS is right in the middle. I can tell you that it is a central focus of my service to make sure that the spent nuclear fuel there is not kept on the coast. I unfortunately have to say that the challenges that we face there aren’t going to be solved quickly, but it’s really important that they receive the attention that they deserve, particularly given the risk that the waste poses to the community.

I look at the issues associated with SONGS on two tracks: first is the important role that we have in Congress to ensure that we’re providing oversight to the decommissioning of the plant—that includes taking the fuel assemblies out of the spent fuel pool, putting them into cannisters and storing those cannisters in concrete while we find a repository that can take them for a much longer period of time; and also the transportation that we need in order to get it from Point A to Point B. So that’s the second part; it’s really working with our colleagues to find solutions that accelerate the removal of that spent nuclear fuel.

What I believe to be true about San Onofre is there are a couple things that make it different than virtually any other site that is holding spent nuclear fuel in the United States. First is the population density; within a 50 mile radius of SONGS, you have over 8 million people. Second is the seismic potential; you have two active earthquake faults, you have a whole network of inactive earthquake faults. And then of course you’ve got sea level rise; we have the Scripps Institute of Oceanography just down the way, also in my district, and they are studying climate change and sea level rise across the entire coast, but having that nuclear plant on the coast now decommissioning is clearly a risk factor. Finally, right across the freeway from San Onofre is Camp Pendleton, which is a very important strategic asset of the United States military—one of only two places in the country where we train men and women for amphibious missions. That obviously increases the risk of having this spent nuclear fuel in such close proximity to that important an asset for our military. That’s why it’s so important, and that’s why it’s obviously one of the top priorities of my service in Congress.

Just a few weeks ago, you introduced the Spent Fuel Prioritization Act in Congress. For those who don’t know much about that, can you give an overview of the bill and what it aims to achieve?

As I just said, the things that make San Onofre unique and problematic are its higher population density and its earthquake faults, both active and inactive. What our bill would do is it would prioritize the removal of spent nuclear fuel from those sites that have higher population density and have seismic activity. It’s important to note that while San Onofre would be at the top of the list, it wouldn’t be the only site that would benefit from this sort of prioritization bill. There are other sites in California and New York and other more heavily populated places that also would stand to benefit. The current practice is that the oldest sites have their spent nuclear fuel moved first, but there’s nothing specifically requiring that in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

I would add that the prioritization bill is one of the things we’re doing, but it’s not the only thing we’re doing. I think it’s really important to talk about the appropriations request that was granted: in the House spending bill, we got $25 million for a consent-based interim storage program at DOE [Department of Energy]. This is really important because obviously we can’t just say, “Take it off the coast.” We have to have somewhere to send it. There are significant environmental and political concerns with a number of places that we’ve discussed since the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, both permanent and interim repositories like Yucca Mountain, like New Mexico, etc. But what this funding would do is help us find the right place to cite, permit and license on a consent-based process for an interim storage facility. It would also provide the funding necessary for a regional transportation plan. I can tell you the most likely place, from what I’ve heard from my colleagues, is West Texas. So, hypothetically, this money could be used to cite, permit and license a consolidated interim storage facility on a consent basis in West Texas, and it also would also provide funds for DOE to work on a regional transportation solution, most likely a dedicated rail line, that could take waste from the Western United States, such as at San Onofre.

The last thing that I’ll mention to you is that we started a task force, which has been critical in shaping this work. This started right when I began serving in the House. In fact, I think we set it up in the time that I was elected but not yet sworn in. It’s chaired by a former Rear Admiral Len Hering, who was kind of the top flag officer in the San Diego region and spent a lot of his career handling and transporting nuclear material, and Greg Jaczko, who’s the former Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Obama. What we’re doing on that task force, which includes lots of our local municipal leaders and our county leaders from both San Diego and Orange Counties, is we’re analyzing all the issues regarding SONGS and working to help identify the best path forward. So their great work has already informed our prioritization bill, our appropriations request and the work that we’re doing, hopefully, will lead to getting that waste off the coast to somewhere that’s much safer from a long-term perspective.

I heard that there were a couple sites considered for consolidated interim storage that hadn’t worked out in the past, mainly because those communities didn’t want the waste there either. But it sounds like there would be consent for the site in West Texas?

I want to go and visit and make sure that’s the case before we move too far forward, but based on everything I’m hearing from representatives at the DEO, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and those that I know from that area, [that is the case]. But I want to go and make sure that we’re doing all we need to do from an environmental justice perspective to ensure that this really is what the community wants.

The other thing that I’ll mention to you, which I think is important, is that, as I mentioned, we’re sort of on two tracks: one track is to get the waste off the coast, the other track is to conduct oversight. So there have been some fairly significant reasons to be concerned lately. At the end of March, I believe, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission penalized Southern California Edison with two high-level violations—they call them Level II violations—and a $116,000 fine. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s pretty exceptional for the NRC to take that step. And that was for an incident in August of last year when one of the cannisters almost dropped 18 feet and then Edison failed to report it in a timely way—they didn’t tell the community, they didn’t tell federal stakeholders, they didn’t tell even the Marines at Camp Pendleton across the street. I think with that incident and the resulting fine, [there are] a couple things [shown] as a result of that: number one, I think it shows that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission really has to exercise its authority to ensure safe practices; and number two is that the public is right to continue to demand transparency and accountability on the part of Edison and the part of Holtec—Holtec International, which is the subcontractor to Edison, who manufactures the cannisters. There are also concerns about the scratching and gouging of canisters during the loading process from when they’re loaded into what they call the ISFSI [Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation], which is a fancy was of saying the concrete that holds the canisters for presumably the next few decades while they cool adequately and while we find either an interim or a permanent site and a mode of transporting those cannisters. While being moved into that concrete, there was some scratching and gouging, and the worry there is that that can lead to premature wear and tear, brittleness, cracks and things like that, which, obviously, we cannot allow to happen because the material inside is highly radioactive and very dangerous.

I know that you’ve called for a full-time NRC inspector to be stationed at San Onofre. Do you think that’s actually going to happen? Has there been any movement on that?

It wasn’t just me, it was me along with Senators Feinstein and Harris, and several of my colleagues in the House: Scott Peters, Juan Vargas, Susan Davis, Harley Rouda, from San Diego and Orange Counties all joined me in that demand. That was about two months ago, since we sent that formal letter, and we have yet to receive a response from them, so I’m going to continue to explore that with them. I’ll have an opportunity to ask them about that at a hearing later today, because Harley Rouda is the Chair of the Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment, and we’re actually having a hearing on San Onofre later today and I’ll be asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission representative about my request [editor’s note: since this interview, the NRC has still not agreed to assign a full-time inspector to San Onofre.]

In a perfect world, obviously there would be a permanent repository identified for all the nation’s nuclear waste, but to that end there’s been little progress over the past 30 years. How do you balance giving people a reason to be hopeful, while also managing expectations?

Well, I just think you have to have as many facts as possible at your disposal and share those facts about what is actually happening on the ground. I think we also have to understand Edison’s timetable on this is that they wouldn’t even begin moving waste off the coast until 2035—they wouldn’t finish until 2050. I think that that is far too long to wait to get this waste off the coast, away from sea level rise, away from earthquakes and population density and a very important military asset. That’s why I wanted to push so hard on the prioritization bill and the money for the consolidated interim storage site and transportation, because I think it could probably accelerate that timetable by 10 to 15 years. So I try to be straightforward about the facts on the ground and the complexity of the issue, but it’s important that we continue to move ahead in a proactive way, because if we fail to do so, we won’t remove that waste off the coast anytime soon.

So what happens next for the prioritization bill?

The next steps for the prioritization bill are very likely to figure out the right senate vehicle to try to get it done. The way things work in Washington, as you probably know, Mitch McConnell likes to refer to himself as “The Grim Reaper” when it comes to passing Democratic legislation. Obviously, we have to figure out a way to insert these provisions and this language into the right senate vehicle, whether it’s their budget request or appropriations request. As a standalone bill, even if it were passed by the house, the likelihood is not very great that the Senate would bring it to the floor, hold hearings and the rest. I am excited, though, that the House Energy and Commerce will be giving us a hearing very soon.

There must be Republicans with nuclear waste in their districts. Are there any allies that can be found on the other side of the aisle for this issue?

Yes, there are quite a few, and we’re having those discussions as we speak. I think there are some Republicans who just want Yucca Mountain reopened and that’s that. Obviously, I don’t agree with that. I think that we have to apply a consent-based process to all of this, and if Nevadans agree, then I think we can explore that Yucca Mountain discussion, but assuming that they don’t, we have to look for alternatives.

You have a lot of surfers living in your district, many of whom care deeply about this issue. What can they do to help move things forward and get the waste out of San O?

Well, first of all, I’m incredibly grateful to everyone in the community for engaging on issues that matter. Ultimately, that makes our jobs as representatives far easier when we know that we have a great deal of public support. The surf economy—all of the businesses, all of the apparel, all of the events—is of huge economic importance to our district and our region as well, so I’m always mindful of the opinions and attitudes of surfers. Obviously we want to protect what is what one the great surf spots of the world as well. My friend Cori Schumacher, who is a council member in Carlsbad, but also a three-time surf champion, talks about how important of a surf destination San Onofre has become over the years. So that’s just yet another reason why we don’t need 1,600 tons of nuclear waste there when people are obviously trying to use it for recreational purposes as well. So I would just encourage everyone to always feel free to contact my office, and to the extent that there are events or other actions that we can take collectively as a community, we obviously really appreciate that support.