LOS ANGELES (AP) — The California Coastal Commission on Tuesday endorsed a plan to allow operators at the defunct San Onofre nuclear power plant to move tons of highly radioactive fuel from storage pools into steel canisters sheathed by concrete.
The unanimous vote underscored a challenge facing the U.S. nuclear power industry. With no long-term national repository to discard used fuel, utilities are faced with the question of what to do with it.
"That's the crux of the problem: the federal government has failed to designate a permanent repository" for used nuclear fuel, NRC Commissioner Gregory Cox said.
Leaving the fuel in storage pools is "the worst of all the alternatives that are out there," he added.
About a third of the fuel on the seaside site, located between San Diego and Los Angeles, was moved earlier from storage pools into canisters. But that complex is nearing capacity.
The permit will allow Edison to construct a complex of additional canisters, which are partially below ground, and move the remainder of the fuel from pool storage into the steel containers by 2019.
Edison called the shift safe and economical — the canisters do not require cooling systems and reduce maintenance costs. Edison says the site could operate until 2049, by which time the company assumes the federal government will have provided a location for used nuclear fuel. The site would then be dismantled.
But critics at the hearing in Long Beach said the panel was creating a nuclear waste dump that could leak or be damaged by flooding or an earthquake.
The NRC has called the plan safe.
"It's almost certain we will end up with a nuclear waste site, permanently, indefinitely," said Gary Headrick of the environmental group San Clemente Green.
The nation has no long-term storage site for radioactive fuel from commercial nuclear plants. A proposed national repository in the Nevada desert, known as Yucca Mountain, was derailed in Washington.
A commission staff report warned that the future was uncertain and the San Onofre storage complex might be needed longer, "possibly for many decades."
San Onofre was shut down in January 2012 after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of extensive damage to hundreds of tubes inside the virtually new generators.
The plant never produced electricity again. Edison closed San Onofre for good in 2013 amid a fight with environmentalists over whether the plant was too damaged to restart safely.