SONGS Before and After

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station as it is today and as imagined after dismantling and most decommissioning is complete in the mid-to-late 2020s. 

Fuel loading at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was not affected by a recent request from a watchdog group that filed a temporary injunction intended to again halt loading of spent fuel into dry-cask storage at the facility, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, the plant's operator, said.

U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino on Dec. 3 dismissed with prejudice a complaint filed in September by Public Watchdogs, an activist group that has fought for greater oversight of the SONGS decommissioning process (see CEM No. 1555).

SCE "is pleased with the ruling dismissing Public Watchdogs' complaint, and denying their request for an injunction to halt fuel transfer operations at the San Onofre nuclear plant," SONGS spokesman John Dobken wrote in an email. The court's decision further prohibits the plaintiff from seeking to resubmit those claims and allows SCE to continue moving spent nuclear fuel into a safe storage system, he said.

To date, 41 of 73 canisters have been safely placed into the dry-cask interim spent-fuel storage facility at SONGS. Transfer of the remaining canisters is expected to be complete by mid-2020, Dobken said.

SONGS, which sits about four miles southeast of San Clemente, was shuttered unexpectedly in 2013 after a radiation leak was detected. The controversial process of transferring spent fuel from cooling pools to on-site dry-cask storage was suspended for nearly a year beginning in August 2018 after a cask containing 37 spent-fuel rods was caught on a flange during loading and remained suspended near the top of an 18-foot shaft for several minutes before being repositioned and loaded into the vault. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducted a lengthy investigation into the near-miss incident, which resulted in a fine for SCE.

SONGS Decommissioning Solutions, the general contractor that will focus on dismantling and decontaminating the plant, recently assured stakeholders the project is in good hands, at the fourth-quarter 2019 meeting of the SONGS Community Engagement Panel Nov. 21.

SONGS Decommissioning Solutions is a joint venture of EnergySolutions, an international nuclear services company headquartered in Salt Lake City, and AECOM, a global infrastructure firm. Both companies have extensive experience in the nuclear industry, with EnergySolutions having been involved in nuclear decommissioning projects in the U.S. and abroad for more than 20 years.

Tom Dieter, executive sponsor of SDS, told attendees at the CEP meeting he began his career working in nuclear facilities. He transitioned to decommissioning and decontaminating them beginning with Pennsylvania's Shippingport Atomic Power Station in 1981. He participated in the cleanup of Colorado's Fort St. Vrain Generating Station, which operated as a nuclear plant from 1979 to 1989 and has run on natural gas since 1996. Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons facility outside of Boulder, Colorado, for which Dieter was a vice president and project manager during decommissioning and decontamination, was originally budgeted at 36 years and $36 billion, but was completed in about 10 years for around $7.6 billion, Dieter said.

Dieter's current decontamination project with EnergySolutions, the Zion Generating Station on Lake Michigan north of Chicago, was planned for 2010 through the end of 2020. He now expects to finish that project in early 2020, he said, adding that he would bring crews of experienced workers from Zion to SONGS. He told attendees he is looking forward to returning the SONGS site to a pristine beach within about seven years.

Dobken said the SONGS decommissioning project is expected to take eight to 10 years at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion. The SONGS switchyard, a vital piece of infrastructure that connects the grids north and south of the plant, will remain after the other major structures on-site have been dismantled, Dobken said. So will the seawall, coastal walkway and interim spent-fuel storage facility.

Additional funds are allocated for the development and execution of a strategic plan to eventually move SONGS' spent fuel off-site, most likely to one of two consolidated spent-fuel storage installations under development in Texas and New Mexico. Activists in the communities expecting CSFSIs are raising objections to them, with many New Mexico lawmakers, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, having recently criticized the CSFSI proposal in that state.

An additional contractor, NorthWind, is helping SONGS and SCE develop a strategic plan to assess the feasibility of moving the spent fuel to a commercially reasonable off-site facility. According to the decommissioning and decontamination schedule, transfer to off-site storage would not begin before 2034. The entire trust fund for decommissioning and decontamination, which includes transfer of the spent fuel off-site, is $4.4 billion, Dobken said. NorthWind representatives also presented at the Nov. 21 meeting, and are currently taking comments regarding the strategic plan on the SONGS CEP website.

Ron Pontes, manager of environmental decommissioning at SONGS and an SCE employee, explained the dry-cask storage radiation-monitoring system in place at the plant that will stream radiation levels in real time to the California Department of Public Health. DPH, in turn, will produce and publish monthly reports on the data. Currently, Pontes said, levels are fluctuating between 10 and 13 microrems with average background radiation levels of around 10 microrems. SCE expects to have the system in place in January, Pontes said.

Pontes also told attendees his team would likely begin "liquid batch radiological releases" into the Pacific Ocean starting this month. Around 300,000 gallons of fluid, including condensate from HVAC systems, were inside the plant when it shut down. These fluids have "very, very low" radiation levels, Pontes said, adding that they will be cleaned up, demineralized and sampled before being released about 6,000 feet from shore through SONGS Unit 2 conduits. The batch releases will be about 20,000 gallons each, Pontes said, and he expects them to be complete around 2022. His team will frequently monitor radiation levels of ocean water, kelp, beach sand and nonmigratory fish near the plant, and will give the public 48 hours' notice before batch releases.

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Associate Editor - California Energy Markets

Abigail Sawyer grew up in northwestern New Mexico near two massive coal-fired power plants. She spent many hours gazing out the car window at transmission lines on family road trips across the Southwest and now reports on the region from San Francisco.