The Department of Transportation, which must grant the final permit before the voyage can get under way, is raising safety concerns about what would be the longest journey for a piece of nuclear waste in U.S. history — more than 15,500 miles. The U.S. State Department has been asked to review the case.
Southern California Edison, which operates a nuclear power plant 50 miles north of San Diego, wants to load the radioactive steel container of a decomissioned reactor onto a barge and sail it around the icy tip of South America on a 90-day, nonstop voyage through international waters.
If the shipment is approved, the vessel would pass Cape Horn, considered one of the world's most dangerous nautical passages. Severe weather or an emergency could force the barge into the territorial waters of South American countries that have made clear their opposition to unapproved nuclear shipments.
Documents filed by Edison describe the "political sensitivities" and possible "entanglements" involved with shipping nuclear waste around South America, especially with the government of Chile.
In Santiago, Chile, officials said Wednesday that the government had not been informed of any possible nuclear shipment from California around Cape Horn.
In 1995, the Chilean Navy chased away from its coast a freighter bound for Japan with 14 tons of high-level nuclear waste. Last year, Chile amended its nuclear safety law requiring safety and contingency measures for all radioactive shipments through its waters.
According to its 835-page regulatory filing, Edison said it consulted the U.S. State Department, which advised that it "should not apply for Chilean authorization for the passage because it was concerned that our doing so would set an unfavorable precedent for future shipments."
A State Department spokeswoman referred questions to the Transportation Department.
The utility said in its filing it will not make arrangements for safe harbor to "avoid setting a precedent." Edison says there are only three things that could require the barge to seek safe harbor: a collision, serious illness among the crew or hurricane-force winds.
Regulators with the Transportation Department, however, are pressing Edison to contact coastal states.
"Although we recognize that advance notification of coastal states is not required, we consider it to be an important element in preparation for contingencies," Robert A. McGuire, the associate administrator for hazardous materials, wrote in an Oct. 17 letter. "It may be necessary to seek shelter in waters of a coastal state."
Edison said it has notified the embassies of countries along the route about its shipment plans. On Oct. 27, McGuire asked the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs to review the utility's application. It's not clear when a ruling will be delivered.
McGuire's Oct. 17 letter also notes that Edison has not made arrangements for emergency equipment, such as cranes, backup tugs or salvage vessels. McGuire also wrote that the utility offered a "minimal approach" to salvaging the reactor vessel if it tumbled into the ocean.
"Given that your transport is entirely over open ocean, your proposal to salvage only in water up to 300 feet appears insufficient," McGuire wrote.
Edison's reply is that it is insured for a $50 million salvage operation.
For now, the reactor vessel, entombed in a case of concrete and steel bigger than a railroad car, sits in a fenced yard at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station between San Diego and Los Angeles.
Until 1992, when it was closed prematurely due to what the utility calls cost concerns, the reactor generated enough electricity annually to power 450,000 homes for 24 years. The plant has two working reactors, generating power for more than 2.2 million homes each year.
Now, the company says, the container holds slightly less than 46,600 curies of radiation. (Nuclear experts say about 1,000 curies is a "sizable" radiation source.) The container emits the equivalent of half of a chest X-ray to someone hugging it for an hour. A study commissioned by the utility found the container could survive intact on the sea floor for 500 years.
Edison says the nonstop voyage around Cape Horn was the best option for moving the vessel to a dump for low-level radioactive waste in Barnwell, South Carolina. Edison failed to reach a plan for domestic transit when a railroad company insisted on a waiver of all liability for the vessel's journey by rail. A plan to ship it through the Panama Canal fell apart when authorities there refused to waive a weight limit for nuclear waste.
Last year, the Transportation Department approved Edison's request to ship the reactor by rail to Houston, and then by barge. But they are giving greater scrutiny to the proposed voyage around Chile, sending the utility two series of detailed questions about the plan. Department officials said they could not rule out another series of questions.
Even moving the vessel from San Onofre onto a barge is a logistical challenge. Edison has had to win permission from several state and federal agencies to drive it down a stretch of coastline that is habitat for endangered birds. The utility says it's taking pains to avoid the breeding season of both the western snowy plover and the California least tern.
Reactor vessels have traveled long distances by rail and barge in the past. In 1989, the Paul Bunyan hauled the Shippingport reactor vessel 8,100 miles from Pennsylvania to a nuclear graveyard in Hanford, Washington, via the Panama Canal. (Under rules setting regional guidelines for nuclear waste, California waste can't be shipped to Washington state.)
The voyage of the San Onofre vessel would be nearly twice as long and would pass through more dangerous waters. Around Cape Horn, gale-force winds blow an average of 200 days a year.
Edison spokesman Ray Golden said the utility had consulted maritime experts and was confident it could successfully navigate the waters. A naval engineering firm hired by the utility found the barge could handle rough seas.
"It's not that unusual for barges to go around the cape," Golden said during a recent tour of the nuclear plant.
Environmentalists and anti-nuclear groups call the voyage foolhardy.
"It's best to secure it on site than risk having it end up being 'stored' forever on the bottom of the ocean or leaking radiation in a trench in South Carolina," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International's nuclear campaign.