Area activists look to be officially involved in San Onofre decommissioning process 

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. File photo
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. File photo

By Jim Shilander

Federal officials outlined the process of decommissioning the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s units 2 and 3 at a public meeting Thursday, while local activists who had argued for the shutdown of the nuclear plant advocated for an expedited removal of spent nuclear fuel from the facility.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials met with the public in Carlsbad to provide information on the process that will close the plant permanently. The commission is responsible for regulating anything relating to the production of nuclear energy, while other aspects of the decommissioning, such as the use of Southern California Edison’s decommissioning funds, are regulated by other agencies, such as the California Public Utilities Commission. Edison is the majority owner of the plant.

Larry Camper, Director of the NRC’s Division of Waste Management and Environmental Protection, said the agency would rely on lessons learned from several other recent decommissioning efforts across the country, as well as from the decommissioning on Unit 1.

Camper said the first two major milestones of the process, permanent ceasing of operations and certification of the removal of nuclear fuel from the reactors, have both already been performed. The next milestone, a post-shutdown decommissioning activities report, is due two years after a plant permanently ceases operations. For SONGS, that would mean June 7, 2015.

However, the utility has indicated it intends to file the report in 2014. Further steps include the actual work of decommissioning and environmental remediation, a license termination plan, final status survey, a confirmation survey and termination of license. The license termination plan must be submitted two years prior to actually asking for the termination of the license.

Two options are available for decommissioning, according to NRC regulations.

One, “Decon,” requires the license to remove or decontaminate equipment or structures to a level that permits radiological release (to 1 to 2 percent of the level created by operation of the plant). Another, “Safstor,” is a middle ground allowing for a plant to stay in a stable position until it is subsequently decontaminated to levels allowing for release, but no licensee has yet opted for this option, Camper said.

According to the agreement between Edison and the Department of the Navy for use of the land for the plant, the site must be returned to “greenfield” status, requiring the removal of all equipment and structures from the area.

Blair Spitzberg, the head of Fuels Safety and Decommissioning for NRC Region IV, which governs SONGS, said regular inspections will be made during the utility’s work, especially during “higher risk” activities. If violations are found, Spitzberg said, they will be forwarded the NRC’s enforcement arm.

“We want to get the attention of the licensee,” Spitzberg said.

Economist Michael Dusaniwskyi said the NRC must only have “reasonable assurance” that funds are available for decommissioning. Every two years, he said, Edison has been required to submit information to the agency as to the state of its decommissioning fund. In two years, he said, the utility must provide a determination as to whether its funding is sufficient to decommission the plant. The distribution of that funding is managed by the CPUC.

Local activists who championed the early decommissioning of SONGS were at the meeting as well, largely voicing concern about the state of the spent nuclear fuel at the site.

San Clemente resident and activist Gene Stone said a number of the groups organized in opposition to the plant, including Residents Organized for a Safe Environment (Stone’s organization), San Clemente Green, the Sierra Club and Citizens Oversight, have come together to form the Coalition to Decommission San Onofre. Stone asked NRC officials to make SONGS a “flagship project for a new type of decommissioning,” including allowing “citizen oversight” of the process.

“This will give credibility to the NRC,” Stone said.

Among Stone’s suggestions was allowing a citizen to accompany inspectors during tours of the plant.

“A critical eye, from a different perspective brings new insights,” Stone said. “We would like to be an active part in the safety of the plant.”

Activists also asked about the type of fuel used in the reactors in the last few years of its operation, “high burn-up” fuel.

Spitzberg said the dry storage cask and spent fuel pools at the site had been certified to house high burn-up fuel, which must stay in the cooling pools longer than conventional fuel.

Activists also voiced concerns about the safety of both the casks and spent fuel pools so close to the ocean and in an active seismic area, especially in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Spitzberg said the casks are designed for a high seismic area and designed to withstand submersion in 50 feet of water.

In response to other concerns raised during the meeting, Camper said no interim storage areas are available in the U.S., although some counties, in New Mexico, Mississippi and South Carolina, have expressed interest if such areas were to be allowed.

The NRC will hold another meeting, Wednesday, October 9, beginning at 6 a.m. at the Sheraton Carlsbad, 5840 Grand Pacific Drive, to discuss the environmental impacts of storing nuclear fuel on the site beyond the licensed life of the plant.

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