The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is no longer producing electricity because of critical design flaws in the plant’s steam generators. However, the plant’s iconic reactor containment buildings still loom large beside busy Interstate 5 in northern San Diego County. The malfunctioning generators are the reason Southern California Edison shut the plant down in June.
No one welcomed that news more than nuclear power opponents. Ray Lutz is with watchdog group Citizen’s Oversight. A sticker on his car window declares, "We Shutdown San Onofre."
“It is shutdown. So all right, like, we won that one,” Lutz said. “But it is not over, our battle is not over, because we have really more time ahead of us."
Possibly up to 60 years more — that’s how much time federal officials give plant operators to decommission a reactor. The plant’s majority owner, Southern California Edison said the utility is developing a shutdown blueprint that should be ready by next summer. Federal regulators allow two years to design the plan. The idea is to dismantle everything.
“(A plan consists of) removing and disposing of the radioactive components and materials, and then longer term we make sure we release the site for what’s known as unrestricted use, which involves reducing any residual radioactivity,” said Maureen Brown of Southern California Edison.
The utility has three courses of action: DECON, which is immediately dismantling the facility; SAFESTOR, which involves letting the plant sit untouched for a period of time until radioactive levels decay and then dismantling; or ENTOMB, which is basically encasing all radioactive components. Option three has never been used.
Edison Vice President Stephen Pickett hinted during an Aug. 13 state Senate hearing that SAFESTOR might make the most sense.
“Now that were focused on decommissioning, our job is to get that done in the manner most cost effective to our customers,” Pickett said. “So we are now engaged in the process of studying whether or not it would be most cost effective to leave the plant in a shutdown condition for some period."
Pickett explained to lawmakers that cost is critical because the process will not be cheap.
“The decommissioning estimate that we’re currently operating to is about $4.2 billion,” Pickett said. “As I said, that assumes many things that may be the most expensive course of action and it's important now to determine if that is the best way to proceed, or not."
The utility has much of the money needed for decommissioning in a ratepayer-financed trust fund, but Citizen Oversight’s Lutz said there is a lot of concern about what that money will be spent on.
“We have several billions of dollars in this trust fund which is managed by a corporate entity,” said Lutz. “And they’ve got this rigged up so there’s very little oversight available for the public to follow the money as it gets spent.”
Lutz is also concerned about the spent fuel rods. When the plant was commissioned decades ago, federal officials promised to have a high-level-radioactive-waste repository. The only proposed facility, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, has never been approved so fuel rods remain where they were used.
“All of the fuel around the country in the 104 nuclear plants are either in the fuel pools or these dry casks, and most of it is in the fuel pools at this point," Lutz said.
Fuel pools, which is where San Onofre's fuel rods reside, are concrete- and steel-lined tanks that constantly circulate chilled water to keep the fuel from igniting.
Lutz said he wants to make sure the fuel is properly monitored so the public’s safety is never at risk.
That jobs falls on the shoulders of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NRC Spokesman Victor Dricks said his agency will monitor the transition.
“The NRC will be there to observe some of the activities, and conduct inspections and insure that the site that is left behind, whatever route the licensee chooses to go, will be a safe one,” said Dricks.
Safety aside, the length of the process, the final cost, a permanent fuel-rod solution and determining how much dismantling is enough are questions that will all have to be resolved as the process moves forward. The quick resolution could take 10 to 12 years. However, that process might last decades longer.
An NRC informational hearing on the decommissioning process will be held at the Omni LaCosta Hotel in Carlsbad Thursday Sept. 26. Doors open at 6 p.m.