Skip to main content
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Deconstructing The Future For San Onofre

September 26, 2013 1:30 p.m.


Dave Weisman, Outreach Coordinator, Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility

Related Story: Deconstructing The Future For San Onofre


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

. Our top story on Midday Edition there's a public meeting tonight in Carlsbad, that is the first step in what may be a very long road toward decommissioning nuclear plant that San Onofre. Ever since owner Southern California Edison decided last June to shut down the troubled plant for good, no one has been quite sure what will become of San Onofre. In this background story KPBS reporter Eric Anderson gives us an idea of just how complicated the decision may be.

ERIC ANDERSON: San Onofre's iconic container reactor buildings loom large beside Interstate 5 in northern San Diego County. Inside the dome shaped buildings are the now famously faulty steam generators. The deteriorating equipment is the reason Southern California Edison shut the plant down in June.

[Chanting, singing: “We don't want an accident.”]

ERIC ANDERSON: No one welcomed the news more than nuclear power opponents great lots is with the watchdog group citizens oversight. A sticker on his car window declares we shut down San Onofre.

RAY LUTZ: It is shut down, all right. So that's a good, we won that one. But the battle is not over now because we have really more time ahead of us.

ERIC ANDERSON: Probably up to 60 years, or that's how much time federal officials give plant operators to decommission a reactor. The plan's majority owner Southern California Edison says they're developing a shut down blueprint that should be ready by next summer. Federal regulators give them two years for that. Edison's Maureen Brown says the idea is to dismantle everything.

MAUREEN BROWN: Removing and disposing of radioactive components and materials. And then longer-term, we make sure we release the site for what is known as unrestricted use. Which involves you know, reducing any residual radioactivity.

ERIC ANDERSON: The utility has three options. Dcom, which is immediately dismantling the facility, safe store which allows the plant sit untouched for. Capital radioactive levels DK and then dismantle the facility, or into, which is basically encasing all radioactive components. Option three has never been used. Edison vice president Stephen Pickett added during a state Senate hearing back in August that safe store might be make the most sense.

STEPHEN PICKETT: That we are focused on decommissioning our job here is to get that done in a manner most cost effective to our customers. So we are now engaged in the process of studying whether or not it would be most cost effective to leave the plant in (inaudible) condition for some period.

ERIC ANDERSON: Lawmakers say that the cost is critical because the process is not going to be cheap.

STEPHEN PICKETT: The decommissioning estimate that we are currently operating to is about $4.1 billion.

ERIC ANDERSON: The utility has much of the money needed for the project in a ratepayer financed trust fund. But citizens oversight really lots of says there's a lot of queasiness about what the money will be spent on this.

RAY LUTZ: We have several billions of dollars in this big trust fund which is managed by a corporate entity. They've got this thing (inaudible) so that there is very little oversight available for the public to follow the money as it gets back.

ERIC ANDERSON: Lutz is also concerned about the spent fuel rods. The plan was commissioned decades ago. Federal officials promised a high-level radioactive waste repository. The only proposed facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain has never been approved so fuel rods remain where they use.

RAY LUTZ: Also fuel around the country in the 104 nuclear plants are either in the fuel pools, or it is dry casts and most of it is in the fuel pools at this point.

ERIC ANDERSON: Fuel pools are concrete and steel lined tanks that constantly circulate chilled water to keep the fuel from igniting. Lutz says he wants to make sure that that's properly monitored so the public safety is never at risk. That job falls on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Spokesman Victor Drake says his agency is monitoring the transition.

VICTOR DRAKE: The NRC will be there to observe some of the activities and conducting inspections and make sure that the site that is left behind, however, whatever route the licensee chooses to go will be a safe one.

ERIC ANDERSON: Safety aside, the length of the process, the final cost of (inaudible) fuel rod solution and how much dismantling is enough will have to be resolved as things move forward. A quick resolution to take 10 to 12 years, however it might last decades longer. Eric Anderson, KPBS news.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm joined now in studio by David Weisman he's Outreach Coordinator with the alliance for nuclear responsibility and David welcome to the show.

DAVID WEISMAN: Thank you for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We invited representatives from Southern California Edison and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to join this discussion but they were not available to join us at this time. What other nuclear plants, David, have been decommissioned?

DAVID WEISMAN: Well as I recall there may be close to a dozen of the more major plants that have been decommissioned in this country over the last decades. It's hard to find one that would be analogous to assume this would certainly be the largest project in fact if I understand that most of the decommissioned just to date were single smaller and would be equal to almost one of the domes at Edison, and a majority of them have been done on the East Coast. They have not been done on the West Coast or any seismic region with the expect of the Trojan reactor north of Portland, Oregon.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So is what you are saying what we can learn from those past decommissioning is only limited considering the size of the San Onofre power plant?

DAVID WEISMAN: In some ways, yes. From a technical standpoint this presents talented challenges because of larger scope of his first process goes I think we can find examples from the previous one certainly is repair advocates and stakeholders which are at the alliance for nuclear responsibility there are lessons to be gleaned antiphonal lessons certainly questions arise stand that should be asked.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now is the decommissioning process potentially dangerous?

DAVID WEISMAN: I don't believe dangerous from the sense of, we are no longer facing core meltdowns etc. Where there might be some risk that seems to have been brought up in the earlier decommissioning is potential exposure of the workers doing it. That, if they begin to decommission very early on before some of the hottest short-lived radioactive components have decayed, then you have to very much limit the amount of time a worker can spend working in that situation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think that's what they ran into an Fukushima where they had to get all of this contained as quickly as possible and some of the workers were exposed.

DAVID WEISMAN: And so to that extent as much as our safety and labor regulations permitted, one would want to reduce the exposure to the workers. What does remain as an external threat would be of course the way that remains in the spent fuel pools, which do remain of course the most vulnerable part of both the working and in this case nonworking reactor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us more about the options we heard mentioned in Eric's report, especially Dcom, and safe store. What is involved in those actions?

DAVID WEISMAN: Let's start by giving maybe an idea of the overall time timeframe from the time Edison announced it filed the official closure pagers papers they have a two-year window in which to submit a detailed plan to the NRC using one of those methods that you just mentioned. The detailed plan at the end of two years will be put for the 90 day public comment and that's related meeting they are having a which you mentioned earlier is the friend to get to know you meeting on the subject. But the meeting with the substantial comments will be one the response to the plant they come up with that they now have two years to present. Now, the dcom versus safe store, the dcom, or just begin taking apart now method was chosen primarily by those older New England reactors I referred to earlier, the Yankee reactors, Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee, Yankee Row, these were New England reactors from the 1960s, 70s vintage that lasted 25 to 30 years and then for economic reasons were decommissioned. These reactor decommissioning jobs generally took place in a 10 year. That is to say from when they began in 1996 or 1997 in 2007 were able to pronounce the site as we heard the as spokeswoman say clean acceptable for unrestricted use. If you look at the before and after photographs of stories written by transform this facility buildings the transmission lines and take a picture looks like a quiet work with the side of the water with one exception off in a corner surrounded by a fence remain the upright canisters of those stored in dry casks of spent fuel. This presents an economic challenge because those communities, well yes it is released for unrestricted use, no one will buy or develop the property while the waste is still remaining there. So it is not on their tax rolls, it's not bringing in revenue. So it is a conundrum that we face but you can clean the site up and in this case I believe the Navy will have a lot to say about it because it is their land in the lease it. What they plan to do with it afterwards but we also remember it does border state parks and the ocean which is all of our water. As citizens and residents.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is safe store?

DAVID WEISMAN: Safe store is the process that allows them to put off the critical components of the decommissioning, the actual demolition, the kind of what you imagine as being sort of the jackhammer and welding torch work. One of the reasons they will choose a safe store method which was done I believe that the Rancho Seco reactor initially although that's principally been decommissioned by now. It allows the hottest radioactive components to cool over 10 years or so and the theory is that it saves money in the end because the workers who can't go to do this get a lot more done during the day when they could go in and for only limited periods of time so that in the end it will be most cost effective tweak the time before you begin to reach the stage where eventually as they've done in the East, they pull out the dynamite and down comes the dome and that is nearing the final line. It should also be remarked when we speak of the spent fuel storage we know that these canisters for the waste cinema from the crypt like mausoleum that doors swing open and they stick them in. Question I came up with when researching East Coast reactors is when they begin to decommission the building they're going to come up with what is called greater than class C radioactive waste, large pieces of pipes, metal, that are too contaminated to send to a dump at this point. We have very few places in the United States that are taking this stuff. Well since the 1990s reactors were decommissioned. Recall that unit one of San Onofre they were not able to ship off of site. What they end up doing is using leftover tasks that would normally be used for the waste to store this greater than class C chunks of pipes and pumps in the middle that need to be stored. And the question might be asked of the cinema free operators is this, do you have enough space, have you left open empty canisters that could be used for this greater than class C we stored you have a dump somewhere that is willing to take it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone I'm speaking with David Weisman, outreach coordinator for the alliance for nuclear responsibility and as you mentioned, as you characterized it, tonight's meeting is a sort of hello, get to know you we are the NRC kind of meeting. But, what are you hoping gets addressed, or what questions are you hoping to ask. Because I'm assuming that you're going to be attending. What do you want them to answer tonight?

DAVID WEISMAN: Actually I'd like them to listen to what the community's concerns are. And then I would hope take some thoughtful and reflective time to come up with substantive and accurate answers rather than the quick and easy thing. That's why I think this is primarily. They should be here to hear our concerns and then get around to providing the thorough answers. But I do think questions that may arise for example, the question about the greater than class C waste that I mentioned. The fact that I'm to date the dry casks are used to store the fuel that comes out of the casks what happens if the cask is subject to a failure as we know they are licensed for 20 years with a renewal of 20 so we are looking at a 40 year life expectancy at the moment for one of these metal casks. What happens if the cask develops a problem, a leak, or something begins to happen to the materials inside of it? Your reaction that they notice for example a temperature spike. Right now on the East Coast for example in peach bottom and three-mile Island plants I believe in the Pennsylvania area where they've had a problem to fix a cask they have to lift it, put it back in the underwater pool and perform these operations underwater. To protect against the radioactivity. And they go in and see whether the cask was looking or some of the inert gas had gotten out, whatever. Will the people at 703, when they decommission, leave the spent fuel pools intact as water filled pools as a possible backup in the event, five, 10, 20 years down the line one of the casks fails and needs to be repackaged. Right now there is no developed system for fixing the package above ground in the exposed air.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think you're giving us a really good idea even if the nonnuclear experts in our audience are not following exactly what you are saying, and how very complicated this whole thing, is not just deciding on plan A or Plan B, there is multiples within each of those plans which need to be carefully considered and decided and so forth. So, this is the first of what you would, what do you expect? How many meetings, how much time do you think it is going to take for this plan to be developed?

DAVID WEISMAN: Technically once they have this meeting they are not required to have another meeting with the public until two years or less from now, at whatever point the person does submit their decided upon major course of action. However there are other venues. For example on October 9 the NRC is coming back out here again. Different branch of the NRC. The directorate of waste confidence why? Because they're confident someday there will be something to do with the waste. Remember nationally we are looking at what to do since there is no Yucca Mountain plan to take all this waste way. Well, that is a meeting the public might want to attend.? The one I just raised about leaving the spent fuel pools intact or not would be a question for the waste confidence people because they are proposing a rule that says in the absence of a federal place to. We are going to find a way to certify it as safe to leave it where it is in dry canisters for up to 160 years. No, we don't know of any metallurgy that can withstand this kind of radioactive bombardment 160 years. We have bridges surrounding New York that are just one century-old where the steel and metal technology of the day have begun to corrode and help her. We've seen infrastructure has a tendency to decay. So, these are all questions I would invite the public, your second bite at what happens to the waste part of this will be on the knife when the NRC comes out to hold this meeting and I believe it is a Sheraton Carlsbad this time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me tell everyone about the meeting tonight. The NRC meeting about decommissioning San Onofre is at the Omni La Costa resort, that is in Carlsbad and it starts at 6 PM. They will open the doors at 5 PM if you would like to attend. We have just scratched the surface of this David, but I really do appreciate you coming here speaking at us. That's David Weisman with the alliance for nuclear responsibility, thank you so much.

DAVID WEISMAN: I thank you and I want to invite folks to visit updates at our website which is Thank you.