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    Big changes underway as San Onofre nuclear plant comes down
    • October 18, 2023

    Inside those iconic twin domes, workers are chopping up the reactor vessels — those thick steel containers that once held nuclear fuel as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station split atoms to boil water, spin steam generators and create electricity.

    Outside, major changes are underway.

    Southern California Edison’s Doug Bauder, a San Clemente resident who has overseen the teardown of the plant since 2018, will retire at the end of October, and Fred Bailly will take the helm. Bailly was vice president of decommissioning for Westinghouse, overseeing its worldwide commercial decommissioning business. He’ll bring an international perspective to the major issue remaining at San Onofre: the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel until the federal government pulls itself together and finds the waste a permanent home.

    A changing-of-the-guard is underway at San Onofre’s volunteer Community Engagement Panel — meant to give locals a voice in the teardown and answer their questions — as well. CEP Chair David Victor, professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and long the public face of the CEP, has left the panel. He’s replaced by Daniel Stetson, a longtime member who heads The Nicholas Endowment, created by Broadcom co-founder Henry Nicholas III and his wife to support the advancement of science, education and the arts.

    The CEP’s next meeting is a virtual affair, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 26. Bauder and Bailly will both be there, and there will be updates on spent fuel transportation plans and the dismantlement process itself (which we’ll preview in just a moment, thank you Nuclear Regulatory Commission). The CEP meeting will be on Microsoft Teams, and details on how to join are at

    Fred Bailly will be taking the helm from Bauder at the end of October. He has 25 years of nuclear experience, most recently as Westinghouse Electric Company’s vice president for decommissioning. He also worked for Orano USA. (Photo courtesy Southern California Edison)

    Public comment sessions have been known to devolve into personal attacks and misinformation, but a worker used one to reveal a serious issue with a stuck canister that Edison hadn’t publicly reported. Meetings have calmed down now that all the spent fuel is entombed in dry storage, but controversy remains about how long the waste will remain on the bluff, the coming dismantlement of spent fuel pools and the eventual release of the filtered water that once cooled the super-hot fuel rods into the ocean.

    Greater radiation

    A lot has happened since the reactors were powered down in 2012 after a radioactive leak in its new steam generators that were supposed to give it decades more life.

    Dry storage of used fuel rods at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on Thursday, December 16, 2021. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Forty of the plant’s 62 buildings are gone.

    Some 285 million pounds of low-level waste and debris have been transported off-site.

    Some 70 canisters filled with spent fuel rods are encased in the “concrete monolith” dry storage system, awaiting that new federal home. Two more canisters are slated to join them, filled with radioactive material from the reactors’ guts.

    The NRC’s most recent inspection report details how that’s going.

    “The contractor was actively segmenting the reactor vessel internals in both containments (domes),” the NRC said. “The vessel internals were being segmented, in part, to separate the different classes of wastes for disposal. In Unit 2, the contractor was actively cutting the lower core shroud core plate and lower core support columns….In Unit 3, the contractor was cutting the lower support cylinder, part of the lower support assembly.”

    That work, however, was behind schedule, because the components located in the lower levels were more radioactive than originally anticipated, the NRC said. That means the lower components must be cut into smaller pieces for packaging and disposal.

    Workers remove a turbine rotor from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2021. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Workers were preparing to remove the reactor coolant pump motors, pressurizers, steam system piping and steam generator insulation, the NRC report said. They’re also constructing temporary ventilation systems, removing trash and debris, and preparing to drain and decontaminate spent fuel pools.

    Future work will include construction of a material handling facility — to provide a controlled environment for future loading of radioactive waste into shipping containers — and cleanup of an oily waste sump.

    “The inspectors concluded that the contractors were conducting the work in accordance with approved site procedures,” the NRC said.

    Edison spokeswoman Liese Mosher likened decommissioning to the intricacies of conducting an orchestra. “We’re making progress,” she said.

    SOURCE: Southern California Edison


    Deep distrust remains among some of Edison’s most ardent critics, and the documentary “SOS – THE SAN ONOFRE SYNDROME: Nuclear Power’s Legacy” gives it full voice.

    Reaching back into San Onofre’s troubled past — a workplace environment that had some workers reluctant to report safety concerns to their bosses in 2010, the $671 million steam generator debacle that led to the plant’s shutdown in 2013, the “near miss” that left a 50-ton canister filled with nuclear waste resting on a metal guide ring near the top of the 18-foot-deep vault for nearly an hour in 2018 — it follows a squad of activists who paint terrifying portraits of what might happen as nuclear waste remains on the bluff over the blue Pacific.

    The specters of Fukushima and Chernobyl are raised on a backdrop of tense music, but the comparison is off. Both nuclear plants were actively splitting atoms when their tragedies occurred; San Onofre hasn’t split atoms for more than a decade.

    The issue here is the waste. San Onofre’s isn’t cooling in fuel pools that require power and water to keep things under control, but rather in dry storage, in the “concrete monolith,” where it waits in steel canisters inside steel silos inside rebar-reinforced concrete 3 to 4 feet thick all around for a permanent burial place.

    Everyone wants the waste removed from San Onofre — an earthquake zone within 50 miles of some 8 million people — as quickly as possible. That, however, is something that Congress must make happen. The feds promised to accept commercial nuclear waste for permanent disposal by 1998; they have accepted exactly none.

    Mosher said that Edison has addressed the issues raised in the film and is focused on ensuring the safe storage of the fuel and working for a long-term federal solution.

    We caught up with Victor, former chair of the CEP, in Dubai, where he was working on energy transformation and the global economy with the World Economic Forum. As head of the CEP, the was often the target of suspicion and frustration.

    “People are upset with the company and the larger situation, and the place they get to vent that concern is at the Community Engagement Panel,” said Victor, who mostly kept his cool. “It’s a volunteer job that comes with a lot of visibility, and when people are upset, it often gets focused on you. But you can help steer the process. I’d say we mostly did that.”

    From left to right, Jeff Carey (SCE), Dan Stetson, Gene Stone, David Victor, Darin McClure and Ron Pontes (SCE).(Courtesy of Southern California Edison)

    An academic, Victor said he learned more about politics through the CEP than anything he has done. He saw, at a granular level, people’s distrust of institutions and how it impacts those institutions. He also gained an enormous amount of respect for local politicians.

    “From them, especially early on, I learned how to take incoming fire, how to sit people down and have a conversation and listen,” Victor said. “I am really in awe of them. Washington might not be functioning, but we’re doing well on the local front.”

    Victor will continue to engage on the policy side, organizing communities around the country to push for a long-term federal solution to the waste storage problem.

    Stetson, the new chair, is glad for that. He spent decades at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point and was hopeful when a call from Edison’s president came in nearly a decade ago — to donate more money for the Ocean Institute’s adopt-a-class program, he thought.

    Instead, he was offered a spot on the CEP. His wife said he was crazy, but he accepted. When he was offered the chair, she said he was crazy again, but he accepted. “I have a problem saying no,” he said.

    The tenor has calmed down at the CEP meetings now that spent fuel is in dry storage and the risk profile has greatly diminished. But there are still important topics to cover — including next week, when officials from the U.S. Department of Energy update folks on rail cars that will be used (someday) to transport waste to an interim or final resting place.

    Stetson hopes to have more in-person meetings, so folks can have more detailed discussions before and after official proceedings.

    “One thing I’ve really tried to do is to introduce elected officials to the situation, make them aware of the need to move forward with legislation and get this problem solved,” Stetson said.

    Good luck to us all.

    ​ Orange County Register