SONGS Aerial View

Aerial view of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2012.

A San Diego-based activist organization on Aug. 30 filed suit against Southern California Edison, Holtec International and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, seeking to halt the continued storage of spent nuclear fuel on-site at the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The suit also names San Diego Gas & Electric and its parent company, Sempra Energy, minority owners of the plant.

A petition filed by the nonprofit Public Watchdogs in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California alleges "mismanagement and mishandling" of spent nuclear fuel at the facility and claims the NRC-approved storage system and casks by Camden, New Jersey-based Holtec International possess design and manufacturing defects. The suit also asserts that the current storage site, located between two active fault lines on the Southern California coast, is dangerous and that "there is an imminent danger that the canisters will fail."

Public Watchdogs, under its mission "to protect California businesses and residents from the California Public Utilities Commission and other rogue government agencies," seeks a temporary restraining order to prevent the further transfer of spent fuel from cooling pools to dry-cask storage. The motion states a preference for continued storage of spent fuel in the wet pools that "were specifically designed and built to ensure the relatively safe storage of this toxic and radioactive material." The suit characterizes the dry-storage operation as "the root cause of the current dangers to life, health, and property" which, the group says, triggered the legal action.

SCE and the other utility defendants on Sept. 5 filed notice of their intent to oppose the motion. The notice says defendants "intend to put forth significant legal arguments and substantial witness declarations" demonstrating the groundlessness of the suit. The defendants requested an opportunity to formally oppose the motion for preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order before the court rules on it, and asked for a briefing schedule.

"This latest effort by Public Watchdogs runs counter to the expressed interest of the communities adjacent to the San Onofre nuclear plant by potentially stranding spent fuel on-site, even when options for transport and off-site storage or disposal become available," SCE spokesman John Dobken said in an email. He said communities near SONGS have made clear their preference for storing the fuel safely on-site and moving it to an off-site facility as soon as one becomes available. "Being ready means having all fuel safely in dry storage and in transportable canisters," Dobken said.

The federal government's as-yet-unsuccessful effort to secure a permanent storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, the Public Watchdogs motion claims, caused plant operator SCE's decommissioning plan to "morph" into one that called for transferring the fuel from wet to dry storage.

Holtec canisters became misaligned during loading into storage vaults in July and August 2018, creating a risk of them falling, events which led to a nearly yearlong suspension of spent-fuel transfer and loading at the plant. Both the NRC and SCE conducted extensive investigations following the incidents, resulting in the NRC fining SCE $116,000 and requiring a dramatic revamping of its transfer and loading procedures at the site (see CEM No. 1554).