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By Shawn Raymundo
Southern California Edison is expected to transfer the last bit of nuclear waste from its San Onofre power plant into dry storage by the end of this week, completing another step in its ongoing plans to deconstruct the decommissioned facility.
Since early 2018, SoCal Edison has been removing spent nuclear fuel from the plant’s Unit 2 and Unit 3 reactors, placing the material in canisters that are downloaded into its storage facility—the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, or ISFSI.
So far, Edison has downloaded 72 of the 73 canisters into the ISFSI. In a tweet from the utility company on Tuesday, Aug. 4, Edison posted a picture of the last nuclear fuel assembly being loaded into the 73rd canister.
The last #nuclear fuel assembly from the Unit 3 spent fuel pool is loaded into a canister for storage later this week. We are committed to safely storing spent nuclear fuel as long as it remains on site at #SanOnofre. pic.twitter.com/YPDEsy83Y8
— SCE_SONGS (@SCE_SONGS) August 4, 2020
John Dobken, spokesperson for Edison, said the canister is likely to be downloaded into the ISFSI on Thursday, but it could potentially be moved to Friday.
SCE Vice President of Decommissioning Doug Bauder said the company isn’t ready to celebrate the end of this chapter quite yet, stressing their priority is safety.
“We’ve been very focused on safety, so we’re very careful not to celebrate early,” he said.
SoCal Edison has had to store its own nuclear waste from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) on-site, just like all other power plants in the U.S., which doesn’t yet have a permanent repository for such materials.
Federal officials have been unable to agree on a permanent location to store the nation’s radioactive waste since 2010, when the Obama administration cut funding for plans to establish a storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Bauder said the ultimate goal is to get all the spent fuel removed from the site of the plant and into a licensed repository for permanent storage. Edison, he said, has experts working on a strategic plan on eventually relocate the material, so if and when the federal government does finalize a location, the fuel is ready for transport.
“The strategic plan that we are developing will look at a series of options for recommended pathways to ultimately move the fuel out of here and also a conceptual transportation plan,” Bauder said. “The actual performance of shipping the fuel is important, as is proper development of a rail car, licenses from” various agencies, and then “monitoring the fuel, to make sure it’s in an excellent condition in a storage environment.”
The final canister download comes weeks after the California Coastal Commission (CCC) approved SoCal Edison’s Inspection and Maintenance Program, which is meant to ensure the company can adequately inspect, monitor and eventually retrieve the canisters for transport.
The approval essentially allows Edison to continue storing the spent fuel through 2035—when it must resubmit an application to either retain, remove or relocate the ISFSI. At that time, the application renewal must also include an updated evaluation of coastal hazards and potential on-site or off-site storage options for the fuel.
This past October, the CCC approved Edison’s coastal development permit, allowing the power plant operator to begin dismantling the twin containment domes at SONGS once the nuclear waste has been removed and transferred to the ISFSI. Initial work to deconstruct the power plant, which went offline in 2013, began in late February and is expected to take about eight to 10 years to complete.
In the years since Edison got the go ahead from the Coastal Commission in 2015 to construct the ISFSI and begin storing the Unit 2 and 3 fuel there, questions from environmental groups have continuously been raised over the site’s vulnerability to sea level rise and coastal hazards.
Edison has routinely pushed back against those concerns, most recently when a report from Congressman Mike Levin’s SONGS Task Force said that, over time, the ISFSI could experience structural degradation as a result of a rising coastal waterline.
Dobken has previously said the ISFSI’s concrete is used in numerous set applications such as dams, bridges and oil rigs, and therefore can hold up to exposure to sea water.
Other groups, like Public Watchdogs, have taken issue with Edison’s handling of the nuclear waste, challenging Edison in the courts. Last year, the nonprofit filed a lawsuit that sought a preliminary injunction to cease the transfer operations of fuel.
The motion was dismissed this past December, in large part because a federal judge in U.S. District Court in San Diego ruled that she didn’t have jurisdiction over the issue.
Throughout the transfer operations, Edison has faced scrutiny from those various advocacy and environmental groups that questioned the feasibility of the ISFSI and canisters, manufactured by Holtec International, used to store the spent fuel.
One of the most notable instances in which Edison received staunch criticism from the local groups came in August 2018, when a canister carrying fuel was being placed into a vertical receptacle but wasn’t aligned properly, causing it to get stuck on a guiding ring.
For nearly a year, downloading operations were halted. During that time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewed the incident while Edison worked to institute corrective actions.
“Simply put, the event shouldn’t have happened, but it did. During the event, we never damaged anything; it was a close call, but it was a wake-up call,” Bauder said, reflecting on the incident two years later. “We fixed our processes, we trained people, we worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (and) worked through rigorous processes to make sure we were ready” to resume transfers.
The NRC penalized Edison with a fine of $116,000 in March 2019, and two months later, it gave Edison the green light to start transferring spent fuel into dry storage again, determining that operations could be safely resumed. Edison, however, wouldn’t lift the pause on transferring fuel until July 2019.
Once all the radioactive fuel is downloaded in the ISFSI, Bauder said Edison will shift its focus on more decommissioning activities, starting with work to dismantle the containment domes by preparing for them to be cut up and removed off-site.
“The domes, when you see driving by, early on, there won’t be a lot of visual changes to the station, but as the decommissioning process moves along, you’ll start to see some of those changes,” he said.
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.