Two failings of our government

San Onofre!/File

On the far northern fringes of coastal North County, within a mile or two of each other along Interstate 5, are two shameful symbols of the failings of our government.

One is the border checkpoint, some 60 miles north of the border. Immigration reform is badly needed, but nothing seems to ever get done. Meanwhile, our border is so porous that the federal government feels the need to set up checkpoints well within the confines of the good old U.S. of A, where everyone driving on the open road can be stopped at any time, probable cause be damned, and questioned whether they are a citizen, where they are going, or, heck, what they had for breakfast.

The other is the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), shut down after a leak four years ago and now a monument to the stupidity of our energy policies. When we should have been pursuing renewable energy and, at the same time, utilizing carbon-capture technology and other high-tech ways to make fossil-fuel power a lot cleaner, we took the easy route and built nuclear power plants, pooh-poohing concerns about that fatal flaw, radioactive waste.

While the plant has mercifully been decommissioned, we’re still stuck with 3.6 million pounds of dangerous nuclear waste.

It should have been moved years ago, but there it sits, smack dab in the middle of one of the most populous regions in the entire country and a short distance from active earthquake faults. It’s the federal government’s responsibility to get it the hell out of Dodge: Years ago, to encourage the nuclear power industry’s growth, the government promised to accept and permanently dispose of spent fuel by 1998. Utilities operating those nuclear power plants, in turn, made payments into a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for the disposal.

Close up and personal with San Onofre.

Close up and personal with San Onofre.

About $40 billion has been collected, but the Department of Energy hasn’t been able to find a permanent disposal site. In January, the department began a new push to create temporary storage sites in areas that want the business, such as Texas and New Mexico. But since nothing’s been decided yet, Southern California Edison, the owner of SONGS, has taken it upon itself to move the poisonous junk from above-ground cooling ponds into steel-lined casks that will be buried underground, within 125 feet of a seawall – a move that’s already triggered legal action and an outcry from local lawmakers, from Oceanside City Councilman Jerry Kern to Congressman Darrell Issa.

Issa wants the government to fast-track the establishment of interim repository sites in regions that want them, such as New Mexico and West Texas. Then, instead of burying the waste underneath the beach, Edison can ship it out of the county.

That’s the sensible approach, and I hope the Department of Energy is listening. But I’m not holding my breath. Getting temporary storage sites up and running, and then figuring out transportation logistics, won’t be easy. And once the waste is buried underground, I don’t see Edison digging it back up and moving it.

Of course, the best solution would have been to go with the original plan and establish a permanent disposal site. For years, there was talk of setting up a deep geological repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, that would protect the environment from the release of radioactive isotopes for 10,000 years (a limit later increased to 1 million years). The government spent $9 billion on Yucca Mountain, which was supposed to open in 2017 — but at the urging of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who didn’t want nuclear waste stored in his state, federal funding for the site ended in 2011 with the support of the Obama Administration.

Thomas K. Arnold Thomas K. Arnold is a veteran San Diego journalist who throughout the 80s and 90s wrote for the San Diego County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Reader and San Diego Magazine. He has won numerous awards from the San Diego Press Club and the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Arnold is currently publisher and editorial director of Home Media Magazine, a weekly trade publication serving the $20 billion home entertainment industry. He is a former City of Carlsbad planning commissioner, editorial editor and editorial writer for U-T San Diego, and columnist for U-T San Diego and the North County Times.

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