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Decommissioning Update for San Onofre

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is a nuclear power plant located at California's San Onofre State Beach that is in the process of decommissioning. Multiple Surfrider blog posts have discussed the numerous issues at SONGS, including inadequate training and supervision, sewage spills, and a nearly dropped canister of radioactive waste. Surfrider demands that the federal government take the best course of action to develop federal legislation and get nuclear waste off the California coast. We seek to keep our readers updated on the ongoing events at SONGS and summarize key updates from the recent Community Engagement Panel (CEP) public meeting. 

Timeline of the SONGS Facility

The SONGS facility was first built in 1964. It is owned and operated by Southern California Edison (SCE), who also functions as the site operator. Its first unit, Unit 1, was in operation from 1968 to 1992. Unit 2 began operation in 1983, and Unit 3 began operation in 1984. These were both shut down in 2012 due to premature wear found on steam generators that had been installed in the previous two years, resulting in a radioactive leak in Unit 3, said to have occurred primarily within its containment shell. The reactor was then shut down per standard procedure. 

In 2013, SCE announced they would be permanently retiring these last two units. An official SONGS decommissioning timeline released by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) shows that all systems were de-energized and drained in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, the decontamination and dismantlement plan for above ground structures began and is anticipated to be complete by 2026. After this, the license termination plan and final site restoration are set to begin and are slated to be finished by 2033. NRC regulations permit a decommissioning process of up to 60 years, but SCE claims plans to complete the decommissioning of SONGS in 10 years.

What about the iconic San Onofre domes? The reactors are currently being disassembled, which the CEP described as being a process similar to surgery. First the facilities must be emptied, and then their size will be gradually reduced from the bottom-up, until the 200-foot tall, 160-foot wide structures are gone. Dome reduction is slated to begin about mid-2025 and be completed roughly within a year. These domes served as the containment for the nuclear reactor units themselves. 

Picture 1: The iconic SONGS domes as seen from Interstate 5. Photo Courtesy of Southern California Edison.

Unit 1 was dismantled previously, while Unit 2 is in the process of being dismantled. This requires the use of heavy equipment to cut up the reactor vessel internals, which will take place underwater, meaning Unit 2 will intentionally get filled with water (and subsequently drained). SCE will begin dismantling Unit 3 in late 2021 to early 2022. The full process of dismantling Unit 3 is projected to last until 2026. In late 2026 to early 2027, SCE will begin working on removing underground facilities, as most of the current work is focused upon above-ground facilities. The completion of the remaining site restoration work, which involves license termination plan and final site restoration, is scheduled to begin in 2026. The end of the SONGS plant decommissioning is scheduled for 2033, which includes the removal of fuel currently trapped on site, but that’s easier said than done (keep reading!).

Onsite Demolition and Deconstruction to Date

A recent CEP meeting discussed how decommissioning activities have grown in the past year, and currently around 450-500 workers are engaged in the process, which is expected to stay constant for the next four years.

Picture 2: An image of some on-site demolition projects. Photo Courtesy of SONGS Community Newsletter, Southern California Edison.

According to SCE, dismantlement of Unit 1 is virtually complete and shipments of parts of the reactor to the storage facility in Utah have begun. There have been major delays in this process, as one article states the reactor vessel of Unit 1 was removed over 18 years ago and remained onsite until recently. The reason for this delay is unclear. The Unit 2 reactor vessel head has been lifted and removed, which allows access to the rest of the reactor structure beneath it. The reactor structure is where the heavy equipment is being added. Work has been taking place for several weeks to demolish the Unit 3 Diesel Generator Building, a building made of reinforced concrete and steel. SCE claims they are working with various groups and agencies to ensure the health and safety of their workers as well as the local community during this demolition process, but they have not provided much information regarding mitigation efforts or cleanup taking place during this process.

Picture 3: The Unit 2 reactor vessel head, which was recently lifted and removed. Photo Courtesy of SONGS Community Newsletter, Southern California Edison.

Picture 4: A shot of the Unit 3 Diesel Generator Building demolition. Photo Courtesy of SONGS Community Newsletter, Southern California Edison.

Picture 5: Another angle of Unit 3 Diesel Generator Building demolition efforts. Photo Courtesy of SONGS Community Newsletter. Southern California Edison.

Cleaning Up the Site

SCE outsources their facility decommissioning activity to SONGS Decommissioning Solutions (SDS), who is in charge of all decommissioning onsite. SCE has stated that SDS is a California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-qualified safety program. During the decommissioning process, NRC staff are required to periodically inspect the operations at the site to ensure compliance with the License Termination Plan (LTP). Inspections normally include in-process and confirmatory radiological surveys.

Interestingly, the CEP stated in a recorded meeting that they follow the decommissioning guidelines set forth by the NRC and use concentration limits of radioactive materials to guide the cleanup of the site, but at the recent CEP meeting it was revealed that the limits are not currently set. The CEP claimed that they will set these along with peak dose limits of various dangerous chemicals as the decommissioning process continues. The CEP has stated that they have recently begun work on their LTP, which will take several years to complete prior to submission for NRC approval. This document is also an essential step of completing the decommissioning process. CEP stated that the approved LTP will become the regulatory requirement they will have to achieve while cleaning up the site. This means that projections for what is required and how long the clean-up will take in its entirety still have a variable that we cannot be sure of as of right now.

Some Waste Stays, Some Waste Gets Shipped

There are four levels of radioactive waste that SCE is dealing with: Class A, Class B, Class C, and spent fuel, which is a different level of radioactive waste and currently in dry storage. SCE has announced plans to ship class A-C waste out over the next 7 years. As part of the dismantlement of SONGS, roughly 1 billion pounds of Class A toxic waste (the lowest level of toxicity) will be sent to Utah. One member of the public at the recent CEP meeting, however, pointed out that even the lowest level of toxic waste still poses significant health risks to humans. Class B and C radioactive  waste material, which are considered to be more dangerous, will be sent to Texas according to the post “Dismantling SONGS, One Railcar at a Time, For Now.” Non-radioactive material will be shipped to Arizona. SCE claims that “[n]o waste material will remain in California,” despite current plans for onsite dry storage facilities for spent fuel as reported by the NRC.

Many critics of this storage, including local residents and the Surfrider Foundation, are concerned that the proposed onsite storage is too close to the shoreline and two nearby fault lines. SCE claimed in response that their spent fuel canisters and storage facility have a seismic rating that is appropriate to the area. The CEP stated they will leave the site within dose requirements, but there may still be spent fuel in the ISFSI and even some radioactive material further underground. It is unclear whether SCE will undertake Phase 3 site cleanup of restoring the original site according to NRC guidelines. Surfrider would like to see full remediation of the site to ensure that no radiological hazards remain in the coastal environment.

Community Concerns

San Onofre State Beach is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike and is a place that holds significant historical value for the indigenous people of the area. Some local activists challenged this shutdown and the transportation of toxic waste, claiming that moving it to dry storage would be endangering the public more. In the recent CEP meeting, concerned members of the public criticized how there are inadequate emergency plans in place should something go wrong and how SCE depends upon the unlikeliness of an emergency event to excuse this oversight. Furthermore, there is a concern that even though SCE may have a seismic rating for their facilities, no rating is entirely foolproof, and a potential leak of radioactive waste could have devastating consequences. Another criticism is the lack of clarity of how much waste will remain on site or be buried in the nearby vicinity as opposed to being sent to other states.  The Surfrider Foundation is most concerned about the lack of a plan for a final resting place for this spent nuclear fuel since it does not belong on the coast.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The SONGS conflict has been an ongoing struggle for the people of Southern California and the safety of our waterways. The Surfrider Foundation advocates for federal action and ample oversight and monitoring in the process of getting toxic waste off the coast. Contact your local legislator about this issue and learn more about it here.