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Finding homes for the waste that will (probably) outlive humanity

On a seasonably warm day in August along a rugged stretch of the Southern California coast, a fleet of heavy vehicles hauled great white concrete barrels from the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, known as SONGS. Each cask, about 17 feet tall and weighing 50 tons, was like a set of Russian nesting dolls: entombed inside was a stainless steel canister, which in turn held 37 cylinders of nuclear fuel rods. 

Since 2013, when regulators finally decided to shut SONGS down for good, teams of scientists, engineers, and policymakers have been hard at work to make sure it could be safely decommissioned. A total of 123 canisters were taken out of the plant and moved to their new home.

That leaves a problem: what to do with all the nuclear fuel that San Onofre had used. Its radioactive waste could outlast the human race, with spent fuel components that include ­plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and iodine-129, with a half-life of 15.7 million years. But for now, there’s no place to store it permanently. 

So SONGS is keeping the rods of spent nuclear fuel in storage holes buried along the seismically active California coastline. They are sitting ducks for the next big earthquake, which is likely to hit within the next century. If the nuclear waste somehow got out, the results would be devastating.

The plan is to eventually transport the fuel at San Onofre offsite, but where to? The US already has 83,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, enough to fill a football field about a dozen yards deep—and with two dozen plants currently in the process of decommissioning, the leftovers will keep piling up. Read the full story.

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