SONGS officials give media tour before deconstruction takes place

Unit 2 of SONGS is planned to be torn down starting in late 2017 after the plant is fully decommissioned. The dome is made of concrete that is 5 feet thick and tons of rebar. Photo: Eric Heinz


By Eric Heinz

As San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station looks to decommission and eventually disassemble, the San Clemente Times was invited to tour the power plant before the area is returned to its natural state.

Tom Palmisano, Southern California Edison vice president of decommissioning and chief nuclear officer, said the power plant has many steps to go through in decommissioning before the physical plant can be deconstructed. SCE is the majority owner of SONGS.

“There’s a number of preliminary things we need to do,” Palmisano said. “We’ve changed our (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) licensing to match the decommission state. We’re completing the first part of the Coastal Commission reviews to expand the spent fuel storage.”

Palmisano said the local support to encourage federal action in removing the fuel and storing it somewhere other than the coastline has been appreciated.

“We will complete the remaining California environmental reviews, and in approximately two years we’ll start the actual dismantlement,” Palmisano said. “At the end of our timeline, we’ll reduce the operating license…until the DOE is ready to take the fuel, we’ll continue to store it safely.”

The entirety of removing the current nuclear power plant will take about 10 to 20 years as the remaining nuclear fuel at the facility needs to be stored properly in dry cask units.

Palmisano said SCE is confident of the capabilities of the contractors hired for storing spent fuel in the area. SCE recently selected Holtec International to perform that task, while local governments continue to pressure federal officials to move the storage elsewhere. Earlier in September, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors showed solidarity in trying to get the fuel stored outside Southern California.

The main control room at SONGS used to be operated by more than a dozen people at once, 24 hours a day. It is now monitored by only a few.  Photo: Eric Heinz
The main control room at SONGS used to be operated by more than a dozen people at once, 24 hours a day. It is now monitored by only a few. Photo: Eric Heinz

“We’re always very sensitive to our environmental impact, as an operating plant and now as a decommissioning plant,” Palmisano said. “We’re paying close attention to the various California processes. Before we start decommissioning, we’ll have to assess those impacts.”

Jim Madigan, director of nuclear oversight, regulatory affairs and nuclear safety culture, has been at SONGS since 1981. Madigan escorted SC Times through the entirety of the tour.

Security at SONGS is tight, and for the safety of the employees of the plant and other reasons, much of the intricacies of the system were asked to not be disclosed.

“We still have the same regulations as before; there’s just some things that we have changed since the order,” Madigan said.

SONGS has utilized the ocean for its operations for years. Billions of gallons of water enter through giant tubes that help create nuclear fission and operate the turbines to harness the power created.

This and all the other large amenities will be taken into consideration when deconstructing the plant.

Just outside the main operating area of SONGS on Sept. 24, when engineers return from areas with possible radioactivity, they must submit to a contamination detector. The vertical machines to the left are the detectors. Photo: Eric Heinz

“Right now we’re just working through the state agencies and last month we attended a (California) Coastal Commission meeting to get approval for the spent fuel pool islanding, which is how we are cooling the used nuclear fuel here,” Madigan said.

At the Oct. 6 Coastal Commission meeting, Madigan said SCE will discuss the permitting for the facility to store the used nuclear fuel, listed as a milestone in the decade-long process of shutting down the plant completely.

The control room of the power plant is somewhat of a ghost town. Although more than 2,500 people used to work at SONGS, the plant is down to about 350. The control room used to be operated by 16 people taking shifts 24 hours a day, but now two or three people monitor the plant from that area.

Currently, the stakeholders in SONGS are going through the process of selecting a contractor to oversee the demolition of the current facility. The bid for the project should be awarded in late winter or spring 2016. In August, SCE hosted a subcontractor fair for the main bidders to recruit companies to assist with the project.

Some of the above-ground dry cask storage is situated on the SONGS campus. Photo: Eric Heinz
Some of the above-ground dry cask storage is situated on the SONGS campus. Photo: Eric Heinz

Ultimately the Department of Energy will have the final say as to where the spent fuel will be kept. Speculations of moving the fuel by nuclear storage companies in Arizona or New Mexico have circulated, but for the moment it is planned to be encased in concrete filling at the site of the power plant.

Additionally, massive amounts of concrete that keep the facility in tact will have to be either repurposed for portions of the dry cask storage or for other uses. The material that comprises SONGS will mostly be shipped out by trucks and a freight train along the coast. SCE is currently working with OCTA to schedule the shipments.

SONGS officially shut down in 2013, mainly due to a multibillion-dollar issue with steam generators that SCE is currently litigating against Mitsubishi for being faulty, Palmisano said. In 2012, a small radiation leak caused the plant to shut down for a period.

The next Community Engagement Panel meeting, where the public can speak to the panel members and receive updates of the decommissioning, is scheduled tentatively for mid-November.

More information on the schedule of decommissioning can be found at

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comments (13)

  • What a waste! Think of the billions of dollars rate payers will, and have been shelling out to replace SONGs. Think of the 1200 good paying jobs lost so we can import power from out of state or produce it with old GHG producing natural gas plants.

    Did San Clemente enjoy the power outage we experienced on Sunday, the 20th of September? That one was curtesy of madame Barbara Boxer’s interference on behalf of the local anti-nukes which resulted in the decision to shutdown SONGs. Had SONGs remained on line, there would NOT have been a necessity to shed load, and in this case, the load shed was (parts of) San Clemente.

    Now the anti-nuke crack pots are going after Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and should they be successful, you can expect more power outages, more rate hikes, and another skilled worker diaspora to parts unknown but whose governments are wiser and not captive to the idealistically naive.

    • Sure, it was a waste. But even running, the plant was a waste of money. When you add up all the costs, nuclear power costs more than 2x the average market price for power. The utilities love them because they make the most profits on investments for such big projects, and unfortunately, they make the money faster if they are a failure.

      But this plant did not need to fail. The redesign of the steam generators was the responsibility of the utility. They failed to perform, and they should therefore pay. Instead, ratepayers are paying while SCE execs wallow in high profits and bonuses. Something has to change. Transferring from investor-owned for-profits to nonprofit municipals is our only hope.

  • Don’t blame the anti-nuke folks because Edison and gang did this to themselves. The SONGS maintenance record was the worst in the nation, and as an example the backup generators were wired up so that they could not work in an emergency. We all know what happens to these plants with no cooling.

    Really?, companies like this should be able to risk the lives of millions of people so that they can realize a profit? Not in this anti-Nuke crackpot’s view. Public safety will always usurp profit. Don’t expect us to give up any time soon………

    • You sir are an idiot. The Emergency Diesel Generators were extremely reliable and tested for every scenario imagineable. Please don’t dilute the facts. Get your anti-nuke facts straight before you make yourself look stupid again? SONGS was a well run facility which only succumbed to the greed of the executives and the nonsensical political rants of those moronic CA liberals. Enjoy the high cost of electricity and the continuation of pollution from the petroleum based power plants. The rest of the world realizes Nuclear power is the current and newer and continues with new construction while the USA falls further behind the rest of the world. You probably voted for Obama too? Get educated and then post please!

    • You obviously have no idea what you are talking about. The maintenance record was the worst? And the backup generators were wired to NOT work in an emergency? I’ll have you know that the backup generators were tested periodically to make sure they did work and it would have been not accepted otherwise. How many backup generators did they have? Do you even know? They were tested in order to protect the public which included ungrateful San Clemente. The maintenance crew and all employees of SONGS were very proud to work there and are saddened by its demise. You people in California want zero carbon emissions yet you shut down one of the biggest zero carbon plants. You people kept talking about Fukushima in Japan as if it could happen here in order to get the public scared enough to want to further your agenda by shutting SONGS down.

    • I don’t where you got your information but I can tell you Most if not ALL of it is Wrong!!!!

    • “… backup generators were wired up so that they could not work in an emergency.”

      This is a totally FALSE statement, you do not know what you’re talking about.

      “… companies like this should be able to risk the lives of millions of people…”

      The “lives of millions of people” were NOT at risk, you again, don’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.

      The SONGs maintenance record was NOT the worst in the nation or even poor, you really don’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.

      Before you mislead the people of this city with your anti-nuke, fact challenged drivel, you should at least learn a few FACTS.

      Did you enjoy your loss of power on Sunday the 20th? Be sure to pass along your thanks to madame Barbara Boxer who back stabbed the city, state, and union workers of SCE.

  • If we can make the same power from the sun’s light, for less money, why wouldn’t we all just make the switch?
    Or we can continue to burn natural gas, burn coal, burn oil and nuclear. These fuel sources heat massive amounts of fresh drinking water, to make steam that turns the generators . We could just put solar panels on our roofs to make the same power without using drinking water with zero carbon footprint, and with no nuclear decommissioning process. All these benefits for less money. I think it is time we all make the switch to solar power. It is a better way to make and buy power.

  • Dave Patterson-where do you get your bad information? “Edison and gang” didn’t do this to themselves. The plant wasn’t designed by “Edison and gang”. Like all construction projects the blueprints and specifications came from the customer who is paying for the construction. I am now a retired electrician that worked at SONGS quite a bit. During the refueling outages, every 12 to 18 months, the subject of those cooling tubes came up, I never had to deal with the problem myself but I did spend time before and after shifts talking with people on the cooling tube crews. I used to hear about the critical tubes that were going bad but couldn’t be replaced because they were designed to be inside the five foot thick concrete walls of the domes. Your remark about the back-up generators being wired so that they couldn’t work is absolute bull too. Any project at SONGS always had “steps” to go by in the work orders. Proving a project was complete and done right was always one of the last “steps”. If you like to write fantasy that’s fine but don’t try to insert it in a serious matter.

  • San Onofre for a long time was an INPO 1 plant (highest safety rate a nuclear plant could have). The safety rating system was changed and things were difficult for SONGS to meet.
    Southern California and a lot of the southwest needs a lot of power in the summer and not nearly as much in the winter, (people using HVAC to cool homes etc. in the summer) Nuclear power plants like SONGS run for 18 month and then need to be refueled. If you shut down in winter to do a refuel and run without stopping your next refueling occurs in the summer. Buying power became a game so to provide the best service for SCEs customers they would shut down SONGS each winter and inspect systems and equipment so they were in the best condition to run through the summer (this also provided time to inspect safety related systems). This allowed SCE to use much of there own alternative power during winter shutdowns, called outages. One outage would be a refueling outage and the next a mid cycle outage. Not having to buy expensive summer time power actually saves money. Many utilities in the mid west where they are surround by other utilities rely on each other to help provide extra power capacity. SONGS and most Cal. utilities can not do this as the west coast is ocean and our electric grid was not developed well between the U,S, and Mexico. SCE saved it customers money by shutting down in winters. The new safety requirements said the plants that have the highest run times with the shortest outages are the safest. SONGS was paid by the power it produced so running SONGS with out Mid cycle outages and shortest outages makes SONGS more money but maybe not SCE and would certainly send excess cost to customers. Nuclear power plants have two “major” emergency systems sometimes more. To support this maximum run times power plants started shut down one emergency systems while the plant was running and would do maintenance with only one emergency system available while on line. With extremely short outages time to look for potential plant defects was reduced, Finding emergent issues would extent outages, fewer inspection could be performed. Power plants with a potential problems were less likely to shutdown trying to extend the problem to the next outage. Management’s main job is making money so short outages and long run times suits them very well. I believe there were close to 2500 people working at San Onofre and more during outages. Largest security force, in house engineering etc. At one time SONGS unit one was the economic model of a successful nuclear power plant. This sold nuclear power plants around the world. Changes killed SONGS: SCE management, SONGS management, NRC and IMPO guide lines and policies, maximizing economic results. A valuable resource for great employees, for electrical grid stability, electrical independence, for SCE, SDG&E etc. rate payers, tax payers has been lost.

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