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To view the entire CEP meeting from Sept. 14, visit www.songscommunity.com under Community Engagement under Meetings.
A California Coastal Commission meeting is scheduled for Oct.11-13 at the Chula Vista City Council Chambers, located at 276 Fourth Avenue. Agendas for what day the Commission will discuss details of SONGS will be available at www.coastal.ca.gov closer to the dates of the meeting.
The next quarterly CEP meeting is scheduled for Nov. 9 at the QLN Conference Center in Oceanside. The tentative topics for the meeting include the land easement and leases from the Department of the U.S. Navy and the end of using that land, once the plant is decommissioned.
By Eric Heinz
Roughly 1,600 tons of spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) are slated to be stored onsite beginning at the end of the year, and plans for the first storage procedures are already in place.
The process, denoted as independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI), was discussed at length during the Sept. 14 Community Engagement Panel (CEP) meeting in Oceanside, particularly the safety measures that will be put in place as required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The CEP is comprised of local officials and experts in fields related to environmental stewardship and nuclear energy.
The burial grounds
Southern California Edison, the majority stakeholder and operator of the now-offline nuclear power plant, is currently finishing up the last construction of the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in a “concrete monolith,” said Tom Palmisano, the vice president of Edison’s decommissioning and chief nuclear officer at SONGS.
There will also be a security building right next to the concrete monolith.
Edison already stores 50 canisters, made by the company AREVA, at an onsite ISFSI facility. But the expansion of the site will enable an additional 73 canisters to be stored a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean.
All plans for canisters submitted by Edison have been approved by the NRC, Palmisano said, and transportation casks for when the spent fuel could be transferred have been approved. But how and where they will go remains to be seen. Also, some of the canisters will house fuel that cannot be transported until 2030 due to the energy’s decay time and safety precautions prohibit transfer until such time.
“There are two cooling periods that are necessary before transportation: one where it’s cooled in the pools, and that takes about five years…and then there’s a cooling period before it can be shipped to an ultimate disposal storage site,” Palmisano said.
Sixty-seven of the canisters can be shipped as early as 2020, and 21 canisters can be shipped today.
All spent fuel rods that are currently in cooling tanks are expected to be offloaded to the storage canisters by mid-2019, and the process is expected to begin at the end of 2017. The NRC will conduct inspections of the facility throughout the next two years.
At the bottom of the canisters is three feet of concrete padding that protects them. The sealed canisters have another several feet of concrete on top of them.
Monitoring the fuel
Palmisano said the nuclear power plant is addressing the storage of spent nuclear fuel with “defense in depth,” a term used for the design of operating plants which includes design and construction, operations and training, maintenance and security.
Edison has touted the security and stability of canisters from Holtec International, the company contracted for the design of the units, that are made of stainless steel with corrosion resistance and are five-eighths of an inch thick. Some of the improvements in the design of the canisters include an improved welding technique as well as opportunities to fix any cracks that may occur, Palmisano said.
Some residents and activist organizations have expressed concern about this process as having the inability to inspect the canisters under the facility in the event of microscopic cracks that critics say could release hazardous radiation.
Canisters already onsite are monitored 24/7 with continuous temperature evaluation and regular radiation inspections.
Lisa Edwards, the senior project manager of the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), explained some of the new developments in technology to inspect canisters.
Edwards said some of these processes include using eddy current arrays, which use electronic indicators to look for cracks and inspect the surface of a canister. This is a “non-destructive evaluation technique,” meaning operators can look at the surface condition of the containers without damaging them. Another technology going to be used is called guided waves, which induce waves in a piece of metal, like ultrasonic but more detailed.
SONGS operators will use an aging management plan that outlines the lifespan of the canisters and identifies ways to address any issues. Edison will use the plan based on designs by EPRI. These plans are required by the NRC in order to store the spent fuel, Palmisano said.
During the meeting, Edwards presented a video that shows miniature robots that go into small spaces in between the canisters. These kinds of inspections are already done by other facilities by putting a small camera through an outlet vent that inspect the units, and SONGS operators will begin doing those same inspections soon, Palmisano said.
“These are not small challenges,” Edwards said. “The robots have to take the (technology) with them into small spaces and 90-degree turns.”
The robots were shown testing mock canisters at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which showed the robot accessing the outer shell of the canister and recording cracks, made by the inspection team as a test, and the surface condition of the casks. It can also identify levels of radiation and canister temperature, according to the EPRI video.
Palmisano said the aging management plan will include the plans for seismic activity resistance.
Even with these inspection requirements in place, Edison officials said were a small crack to occur in a canister, there would be “minimal to no impact” to the site or the public. Palmisano said there are multiple barriers in addition to the concrete overlay that would prohibit any radiation from escaping.
That said, he acknowledged any cracks must be dealt with.
Why spent nuclear fuel at SONGS can’t be moved today
David Victor, Ph.D., the chairman of the CEP, said he was optimistic about the progress of a Congressional bill that would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to allow for temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel at other facilities.
The act currently does not allow for temporary storage, but without any permanent facilities available—nationwide—the fuel has to stay at San Onofre. The Department of Energy (DoE) is the ultimate authority on where the fuel will be permanently stored.
Victor said the bill’s passage looked promising, but its progress has become stagnant since it was slated to reach the House floor in July, as larger bills have taken priority and the effects of health care repeal and revision laws have eclipsed nuclear energy policy.
“Moving the spent fuel out of here almost certainly requires a change in federal law,” Victor said, adding he has heard people trying to find ways to move the fuel without those changes, but he also said it’s “very difficult” to see how that would legally transpire.
Victor said there is another bill in Senate that has not developed much. He also said he plans to travel to Washington, D.C., at the end of the month to testify at the House Oversight Committee and could possibly discuss the prospects of reopening Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where the spent fuel was originally planned to be stored.
“At the beginning of this year, a lot of us thought the odds of getting the laws changed in Washington,( D.C.) were high because we had one party controlling Congress and the Senate,” Victor said. “But I think those odds are going down because Washington has gotten nothing done. The DoE is in a degree of chaos because there are key political appointments that have not been made.”
State Assembly Member Bill Brough, of Dana Point, introduced a bill that would look into safe transportation of the spent fuel, and that bill passed the Assembly on May 31. However, Victor said it’s likely to be held until 2018. The bill is currently in the State Senate Rules Committee.