By Shawn Raymundo
The California Coastal Commission (CCC) approved a development permit last week that will allow Southern California Edison (SCE) to begin dismantling the twin containment domes at the San Onofre power plant once the nuclear waste has been removed and downloaded into its interim storage facility.
Much to the dismay of many in the audience who attended the CCC’s Oct. 17 meeting in Chula Vista, commissioners were unanimous in their decision to approve the coastal development permit, which came with a laundry list of conditions SCE must comply with in order to “protect the quality of coastal waters, ensure biological productivity, and protect against the release of hazardous materials.”
In a press release from Edison, the majority owner of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), the company states that the eight- to 10-year process of removing the above-grade structures, including Units 2 and 3, could begin by next year.
The “dismantlement of the plant structures will remove a significant amount of hazardous material from the site,” SCE explained in the release. “In addition, removing most of the above-grade structures will eliminate prominent visual features associated with the facility and start the process to return the property to landowners as soon as practical.”
The Coastal Commission’s report on the development permit notes that SCE’s plans to remove the infrastructure would leave “significant amounts of foundation, footings, and other existing material in place,” potentially leaving the coastal environment and community vulnerable to safety risk.
“Over time, coastal processes, exacerbated by sea level rise, could cause portions of remaining structures to become exposed, which would cause potential risk to public safety and marine life, as well as impacts to visual resources and public access,” the CCC report stated.
To address those concerns, Coastal Commission staff included several conditions in the resolution that requires Edison to provide annual progress reports of the project to the commission every June 15. Other conditions also mandate the development and submission of a Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Plan, as well as a Spill Contingency Plan, to the commission for approval prior to the start of the project.
A late addition to the list of conditions included in the resolution would expedite a provision in the separate CCC-approved development permit from 2015 that authorized Edison to build its Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) for the dry storage of radioactive waste.
The 2015 permit required Edison to submit an Inspection and Maintenance Program by October 2020. That program, which is meant to ensure that the casks Edison uses to store spent nuclear material “will remain in a physical condition sufficient to allow both on-site transfer and off-site transport,” must now be submitted to the Commission by March of next year.
Edison must also foot the bill for an independent, third-party review of the Inspection Installation Program. And SCE can’t start the removal of spent fuel pools at SONGS until the Commission has approved the program or until July 2020, whichever happens first, CCC Senior Environmental Scientist John Weber explained.
Edison has been working to decommission the plant, which currently sits on land owned by the U.S. Navy, since 2013. Per the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Edison has 60 years to complete the decommissioning. Like all nuclear power plant operators in the country, Edison has been forced to store its own radioactive waste on-site, as the nation doesn’t have a permanent repository for such material.
The federal government’s plan to establish Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent storage site has been stuck in legislative gridlock since 2010, when the Obama administration cut funding for the project.
“We all really recognize that the main failure in all of this is the federal government guaranteed a permanent off-site location for spent fuel, and the federal government has yet to deliver on that commitment,” Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis said at the CCC meeting. “This isn’t just an issue for this site but other sites across California and the country.”
Steve Padilla, vice-chair of the commission, echoed Kounalakis’ statements, slamming the federal government’s inaction as “preposterous and absurd.”
“We should not be in a position in the state of California where we are even contemplating storing radiological materials in the coastal zone. It is disgusting to me,” Padilla said, later adding: “I don’t like it, it’s a no-win; if we fail to move this forward, we just delay the decommission . . . we may create unintended consequences.”
Tensions began to flare toward the end of the nearly four-hour discussion on the resolution, prompting the commissioners to take a brief recess before voting, as members of the public were interrupting. However, when the commissioners came back for the vote, they approved the resolution in a unanimous decision, avoiding a roll-call vote, which was met with scorn from audience members.
“Roll call!” a few spectators exclaimed.
“I’m not calling a roll (call vote); I don’t need a vote. I got a unanimous vote, so you can either sit down and be quiet or leave,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco later replied to continuous calls for a roll-call vote.
“We’re either going to leave this room or you’re going to sit down and be quiet. Which would you rather have?” she said amid the repeated requests from the audience. “Do you know what a unanimous vote is? Do you have any sense?”
According to SCE, the latest decommissioning phase is expected to create about 600 jobs over the next decade, with most of the labor force coming from the San Diego region.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.