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Canisters stoke fears of nuclear waste accident

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Some opponents of a proposed interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in southeast New Mexico say they believe the canisters that would hold the radioactive rods could be unreliable.

A February incident involving Holtec International HI-STORM UMAX canisters at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California has prompted concerns from members of the public in the beachside community and by New Mexicans who say transporting the fuel to a temporary storage site in the southeast corner of the state would be too dangerous.

While performing a pre-loading inspection before inserting spent nuclear fuel into one of the canisters, a loose metal pin was discovered on the canister’s bottom.

The pin was identified to have been from a shim in the canister. Shims are used to center the baskets that hold the fuel.

Shim pins are used in a new canister design by Holtec. Previously, shims were fabricated without pins.

Four canisters of the new design already had been loaded at the facility.

Holtec said in a statement sent to the Journal that the company performed a “detailed root cause analysis and study of the abnormality” in conjunction with plant owner Southern California Edison and a third-party consultant.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California holds around 1,600 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. (Source: Southern California Edison)

“The (evaluation) criteria included inspection records prior to loading, actual heat load of each canister, and seismic analysis with an assumed unidentified abnormality,” the statement read. “The evaluations using the criteria above confirm the safety of the four canisters loaded at San Onofre.”

A spokesman with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the NRC has provided oversight of the actions taken by Holtec and San Onofre.

“NRC’s inspection of Holtec has not been completed but the results will be made available following our normal inspection process,” he wrote.

SCE spokeswoman Maureen Brown said the analysis found the four fuel-laden canisters are maintaining their integrity, but the site will no longer use canisters made with the newer design.

The company had ordered 73 canisters from Holtec to store spent nuclear fuel, 30 of which are of the newer design.

“Holtec will conform the remaining 39 of those 43 new design canisters to the original design before they are loaded at San Onofre,” Holtec’s statement said.

The shims not only hold the basket in place, they are also intended to allow the circulation of helium to cool the spent fuel.

Donna Gilmore, founder of, said she is worried about the repercussions should the circulation be compromised inside the four already loaded canisters, which she refers to as “Chernobyls in a can.”

“Edison received defective nuclear fuel waste canisters from Holtec,” she said.

Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program at the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, said even if the canisters don’t experience any immediate problems, the shim pin issue doesn’t exactly encourage confidence in the company that wants to transport the nation’s spent nuclear fuel to the southeast corner of the state to be stored in thousands of their canisters.

“The example I use is that we’ve known how to make cars in the United States for over 100 years but on occasion there’s something wrong. We usually call them lemons,” Hancock said. “Turning to the UMAX canisters, they’re very big and robust on the one hand, but on the other hand, a little problem can be a big one.”