Beachfront Nuclear Wasteland in Southern California?

Tribal members have not been consulted about a proposal to store nuclear waste at a facility 100 feet from the ocean at San Onofre beach in California.

A controversial plan to temporarily store more than three million pounds of spent nuclear fuel 100 feet from one of Southern California’s most popular beaches, San Onofre, is meeting with fierce resistance from local communities, including tribal members. The problem for the Native population is that while the formal decision-making process systematically involved a wide variety of stakeholders including local and state governments, community groups, environmentalists, academics, military, and business, education, and labor leaders, tribal governments were excluded.

The Backstory

Halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, and with eight million people living within a 50-mile radius, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) looms above what is otherwise a pristine stretch of coastline. It is surrounded by San Onofre State Park, one of the state’s busiest parks, which sits within the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. San Onofre is the traditional territory of the Acjachemen people, who know the area as Panhe. Prior to colonization, San Onofre was also territory shared by the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians (Luiseño). Both are state-recognized tribes. All these factors mean there are many different people with strong opinions about nuclear waste storage near their communities.

The aging “nuke plant,” as local residents call it, is owned primarily by Southern California Edison, and was permanently shut down in 2013 after a discovery that it was leaking radioactive gas. It is scheduled for full decommissioning; at issue is how and where to store the accumulated radioactive waste in the short term before a long-term plan can be worked out.


Location of the nuclear waste burial site, 100 feet from the ocean.

What could go wrong? Location of the nuclear waste burial site, 100 feet from the ocean.

“To the best of our knowledge, our tribal government was never contacted by Edison," Rebecca Robles, Acjachemen tribal member and co-director of the United Coalition to Protect Panhe, told ICMN. Other local tribal leaders declined to comment.

The storage of nuclear waste has haunted the U.S. for decades. The Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada was thought for many years to be the answer to storing the ever-accumulating deadly trash of the nuclear industry. But after a complex 30-year battle (and billions of dollars), the Yucca Mountain plan was scrapped.

With no real long-term options, nuclear facilities have been forced to store their spent fuel onsite until a longer-term solution is found.

Spent fuel rods currently stored in cooling pools in SONGS’ two reactors need to be removed to dry storage, which according to studies is safer. SONGS planned to move more than 100 steel casks encased in concrete containers and bury them onsite just 100 feet from the high-tide mark in an area already plagued by erosion. In addition, ocean levels at that site are rising faster than expected, according to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Google Earth images highlight the reason that residents are so alarmed by the location of the storage, as the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

With increased awareness of the issue has come increased public criticism. Critics believe burying the waste so close to the beach in an earthquake-prone region is a recipe for disaster, in light of the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe, according to the Orange County Register.

They also believe that the 5/8-inch steel casks that SONGS plans to use are far too flimsy, according to a report by the citizen group San Onofre Safety.

Because SONGS is in the coastal zone it is subject to California Coastal Commission rules, and was granted a permit by the commission to temporarily store the waste for 20 years. In November 2015 the community watchdog group Citizen’s Oversight filed a lawsuit against the Coastal Commission, demanding that the permit be revoked and another site found, Reuters reported. Citizen’s Oversight and the state are now negotiating a settlement, Fox 5 News reported on April 7.

Decisions Made Without Tribal Input

Before the CCC issued the permit in October 2015, the decision-making process about how to store the waste had been aided by an advisory body called the Community Engagement Panel organized by Edison, which began meeting in March 2014.

The CEP “is committed to managing the decommissioning process in an inclusive, forward-thinking, and responsible way,” its website says. “This commitment includes bringing together diverse stakeholders from the community for an open conduit of information and ideas through the Community Engagement Panel.”


State law AB 52 requires consultation with tribal governments before it issues permits for development-related projects, prompting questions about why local Native nations weren’t consulted in this case.

“The commission's longstanding practice is to reach out to tribal representatives when we're aware that a project may be of concern for those tribes or may affect their cultural resources,” CCC Public Information Officer Noaki Schwartz told ICMN. “We are currently developing a more formal policy on tribal consultation, to maximize tribal engagement at the earliest opportunity. However, in the case of the storage of the spent fuel rods, AB 52 did not apply. AB 52 governs situations where agencies are preparing EIRs [environmental impact reports] or negative declarations, and that was not the case here. SONGS has been storing waste in its spent fuel pools and a previous ISFSI [Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation] for decades, and the new facility did not trigger a new NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] review.”

It appears that no effort was made by the CEP to contact local tribal governments, and nowhere in the CEP charter is the inclusion of tribes mentioned. The question was raised in the February CEP meeting by Angela Mooney D’Arcy, Acjachemen tribal member and Executive Director of the Sacred Places Institute.

“There are appointees from every local government,” Mooney D’Arcy told ICMN. “When I spoke I said, ‘no disrespect but the tribal governments of Acjachemen and San Luis Rey predate yours by thousands and thousands of years, and certainly Native nations should have a seat on the panel.’ I know they’re concerned about it because after the meeting the press person for SoCal Edison introduced me to the chair of the panel to talk about my concerns. The Acjachemen tribe to which I belong [there are four separate Ajachemen governments according to Mooney D’Arcy] has said they will send a letter requesting an appointment on the Community Engagement Panel and for government-to-government consultation, and San Luis Rey has as well.”

ICMN contacted Southern California Edison with the question about why local tribal governments hadn’t been contacted.

“The question came up at the last panel meeting and the chairman David Victor said he would take it under advisement. I don’t have any additional information,” said SONGS spokesperson Maureen Brown.

It remains to be seen if or how the lawsuit negotiations will affect the location of the waste storage site. No matter what happens, however, this is only the beginning stage of the interim storage at SONGS and there will be a need for the Community Engagement Panel for years to come to monitor the issue. That means there is still plenty of reason for a tribal appointment.