NRC Hedges Its Bets On Decommissioning Plan For San Onofre

Tuesday, October 28, 2014
By Alison St John

If you couldn't attend Monday's meeting, you can still submit comments. Here's how to do that:

Online: Go to the federal government’s rulemaking website,, and use Docket ID NRC-2014-0223.

By mail: Send to Cindy Bladey, Office of Administration, Mail Stop: 3WFN-06-A44M, U.S. Nuclear

Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001.

Deadline: Comments will be accepted through Dec. 22 and will be posted on

When the San Onofre nuclear power plant shut down in June of last year, some were disappointed to lose what had, until then, been a reliable source of electricity. The plant was closed nine years before its license was due to expire.

Others breathed a sigh of relief that the company had finally decided not to try to fix the plant and call it quits. New steam generators had suffered a radiation leak in January 2012, just months after being installed.

Though San Onofre’s days of generating power are over, the challenge of managing safety at the site remains.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission met Monday night in Carlsbad, just south of the plant. It was the first time the public could question the agency that regulates the nuclear industry about how it plans to oversee the decommissioning of the plant. About 400 people showed up at the Omni Hotel to hear about the plan and the NRC’s role.

The biggest issue to emerge was the storage of the spent nuclear fuel on site.

Though most of the radioactive materials in the infrastructure on the site will be buried or removed over the next 20 years, the spent fuel may need to be stored there much longer. That’s because Congress has so far failed to reach agreement on a national repository for high-level radioactive waste.

Tom Palmisano of Southern California Edison, the majority owner of San Onofre, said that Edison's plan is to transfer the spent nuclear fuel, which remains radioactive for thousands of years, from cooling ponds into what are called “dry casks,” or canisters, by 2019. Then the U.S. Department of Energy would take the canisters off Edison's hands, somewhere between 2035 and 2049, he said.

“This is part of a bigger nationwide plan that the Department of Energy has to remove nuclear fuel from all the reactor sites and decommissioning sites,” Palmisano said. “This is where we understand we would be in their queue to remove fuel from San Onofre.”

But there is no guarantee Congress will have reached agreement on a national storage site by then. Congress missed its last target date to agree on building a repository and storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.

Many of those who asked questions at the meeting were worried about the reliability of the canisters, which have only been used to store spent nuclear fuel for two or three decades. Community activist Donna Gilmore of San Onofre Safety said there is evidence that a canister at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo has shown signs of cracking prematurely, after just a couple of years.

“We do not know if any of the canisters that are currently at San Onofre have stress corrosion cracking, because they haven’t looked at any of them. It’s too dangerous for the workers to do that,” Gilmore said. “The canisters cannot be repaired. We’re looking at potentially replacing canisters. There’s no money in the decommissioning fund for replacing canisters.”

Over the life of the plant, Edison has collected from ratepayers a decommissioning fund of more than $4 billion. Palmisano said the plan is conservative. Edison has even suggested there is a possibility the utility may be able to refund some of the money to ratepayers.

But the NRC is hedging its bets.

NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said the agency is being careful not to accept liability for anything that might happen down the line. He said the NRC is checking that Edison’s plan meets all the regulatory requirements but won't approve or disapprove it.

“They have submitted this plan to us, which basically outlines the steps they will take over the next 20 years to decommission the site. We will review the plan, but we don’t approve it or disapprove it,” Dricks said.

Edison is in the process of choosing between two different companies that offer canisters to store the nuclear waste.

Activists worry they are both less robust than canisters being used in Europe and by the military. They want the NRC to require more sturdy canisters and more money for a backup plan should anything go wrong.

Dricks said the NRC couldn’t prevent Edison from refunding money if the company argues it is meeting all the regulatory requirements.

NRC staffer Michael Dusaniwyskyj said the agency does not regulate the cost of decommissioning, only the safety.

"I’m going to have to say something that you’re not going to like, " he said, "and that is the fact that if you postulate some possibilities that the funds do run out, the financial solutions will not be popular. But the point that must be remembered is that the NRC does not regulate commerce. "

He added that future projections of what it will cost to decommission the plant have to be based on "reasonable" assumptions.

NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said reasonable assumptions are, ”our best guess.”

When Congress will reach an agreement on a permanent storage site for nuclear waste is anybody’s guess. That makes it difficult to project an end point for Edison’s responsibility for the spent fuel and the decommissioning process.

But the NRC recently reached what it calls a new ‘Waste Confidence” finding, which says nuclear waste can be stored on site for 60 or 100 years, or even indefinitely.