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San Onofre Decommissioning Update

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is pictured, April 16, 2019.

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is pictured, April 16, 2019.

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As summer slips by, work continues to dismantle the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The process of decommissioning the plant is more controversial than its 44 years in operation, due to unanswered questions about where to safely dispose of the nuclear waste.

Aired: July 27, 2020 | Transcript

Work continues to dismantle the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which provided San Diego with 20% of its electricity until 2012 when it shut down prematurely, due to a radiation leak. The process of decommissioning the plant is more controversial than its 44 years in operation. The question is whether the high-level nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years, can be safely disposed of?

Rob Nikolewski, energy reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, has been following the progress of decommissioning and storing the radioactive waste.

Nikolewski said one very large chunk classified as low-level nuclear waste has already been transported to a storage site near Clive, Utah. The 770-ton reactor vessel was shipped by rail and a convoy of eight trucks across over 400 miles to its destination. Millions more pounds of low-level waste will be broken down into smaller pieces and transported to Clive, where the private company Energy Solutions has a licensed repository.

However the high-level waste — hundreds of spent fuel rods — remains on-site, since the federal government has failed to approve a long- term storage site for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste. Southern California Edison, which owns the plant, has nearly finished transferring canisters of highly radioactive spent fuel rods into over 70 concrete bunkers next to the beach.

Earlier this month the California Coastal Commission approved Edison’s permit for the decommissioning, including removing the cooling pools which originally held the stored spent fuel rods. The Commissioners reserved the right to review the permit in 15 years and if there is evidence of cracking or other problems such as sea-level rise that threaten the integrity of the canisters, the permit holder could be required to move them.

San Diego Congressman Mike Levin is concerned about the safety of the site, which is in his district and has millions of people living within 50 miles. Levin convened a task force that met for a year and recently came out with a report. One recommendation is that since the federal government has not approved a long-term storage site for high-level nuclear waste, the state of California should take more responsibility for how the nuclear waste is disposed of.

Nikolewski said he has not seen any evidence of state officials stepping forward to hold the companies accountable. He said federal law may need to be changed to allow for that.

The distinctive twin domes that are visible from the Interstate 5 will be removed sometime between 2025 and 2027, and decommissioning the plant, including removal of the low-level nuclear waste, should be complete within 6 to 8 years. The high-level waste will remain indefinitely, in bunkers near the beach.

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