The reactor pressure vessel for the decommissioned Unit 1 at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in California has reached its final destination for disposal.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission noted the July 14 milestone in a report issued Monday from its latest inspection of the three retired reactors at the San Diego County power plant. Majority owner Southern California Edison (SCE) generally received strong marks, with inspectors reporting no violations of federal regulations.
Unit 1 operated for 24 years before being shuttered in 1992, more than two decades ahead of the permanent closures of SONGS’ other two reactors. While Unit 1 was largely decommissioned afterward, the reactor pressure vessel remained held on-site after being emptied of nuclear fuel. It was placed within a steel vessel filled with a concrete-like grout.
Decommissioning contractor SONGS Decommissioning Solutions managed the transport by rail and road to a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Clive, Utah. The facility is operated by one of the partners in SONGS Decommissioning Solutions: Salt Lake City-based nuclear services firm EnergySolutions.
The entire 770-canister package rolled out on rail on May 25, traveling 366 miles over four days at a top speed of 15 mph on a 36-axle Schnabel car, EnergySolutions said in a press release this week. The train took the pressure vessel to a railyard in Apex, Nev., where it was transferred to a hydraulic platform trailer. On June 29, the 384-tire trailer hit the road, pulled 400 miles by six trucks at a top speed of 10 mph.
The reactor pressure vessel is now within the disposal cell at Clive, and should be put into its final resting place within a week, EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said Thursday.
The equipment is considered Class A low-level waste, the least hazardous of the federal government’s three official classifications for that waste type. Ninety-percent of waste from decommissioning SONGS is Class A, and will be sent to EnergySolutions at Clive, Walker said. More radioactive material will be shipped to Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County, Texas, which is licensed to take Class B and C waste, while a portion will go to a landfill in La Paz, Ariz.
Southern California Edison hired the EnergySolutions-AECOM team in 2016 to manage decommissioning of the last two reactors at SONGS, which permanently closed in 2013 after being equipped with faulty steam generators. The $4.4 billion job involves decontamination and eventual teardown of the facilities. Major work began earlier this year and is scheduled for completion before 2030.
In its latest update on decommissioning, Southern California Edison listed a number of milestones during the second quarter of 2020, including completion of upgrades to a rail spur, ongoing asbestos removal in several buildings, and the site assessment for radiological contamination. For the current third quarter, asbestos removal and site assessment will continue, according to the update. The asbestos removal will be a years-long job, SCE spokesman John Dobken said.
Workers are also preparing for large-component removal from the two reactor containment buildings and nearby structures.
“Some of the projects we undertake will be highly visible to those in the area while others, particularly the early projects,
are taking place inside the structures on-site, such as the containment domes,” Doug Bauder, Southern California Edison chief nuclear officer at SONGS, wrote in the update. “The domes contain many components, which will need to be removed before the domes themselves are eventually torn down. In preparation for that work, we removed more than 300 tons of asbestos-containing material, which has been safely shipped off-site to an appropriate waste repository.”
AECOM, the Los Angeles-based infrastructure multinational, said in May it was in negotiations to sell its stake in SONGS Decommissioning Solutions. There was no update as of Tuesday, a company spokesman said.
Meanwhile, SCE contractor Holtec International is in the home stretch of transferring spent fuel from reactor Units 2 and 3 into a dry-storage pad at SONGS, about 100 feet from the Pacific Ocean. As of Thursday morning, 71 of 73 canisters had been placed into storage. When finished, there will be about 3.5 million pounds of radioactive used-fuel rods on-site from all three reactors.
That has been a concern for residents, advocacy groups, and leaders in the densely populated, seismically active region, despite assurances from Southern California Edison that the storage system is designed to survive a natural disaster. Concerns were exacerbated by an August 2018 incident in which one fuel canister was left at risk of an 18-foot drop into its below-ground storage slot for nearly an hour. That event led to a near-yearlong pause on the project.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), whose 49th Congressional District encompasses SONGS, in June released a report from a task force he established last year to study the spent fuel issue. In the introduction to the report, he discussed several potential legislative means to advance removal of tens of thousands of tons of stranded spent fuel from SONGS and other U.S. nuclear plants and into long-term storage or permanent disposal. Those would include removing the mission from the Department of Energy to a new Nuclear Waste Administration to begin a new consent-based siting process for storage or disposal locations, given the decades-long impasse over the planned Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.
In a webcast question-and-answer session Wednesday, Levin noted that the idea for the stand-alone nuclear waste agency dates at least to the 2012 report from the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.
“We’re in the very early stages of developing that legislation,” Levin said. “It’s going to take extensive outreach to local experts, stakeholders around the country, my colleagues in Congress. We want to craft smart policies that truly address the significant challenges that our country is facing, and that can take some time.”
Part of the effort will include establishing a spent nuclear fuel caucus of lawmakers, he added.
“What everybody should know is that the waste in San Onfore, 1,600 tons of highly radioactive waste right next to the beach, that is not the real problem,it is a symptom of a bigger problem,” Levin said. “The bigger problem is we have nowhere to send it.”