The Coast News Group
Public Watchdogs, a local watchdog group, has filed a petition to put a halt to dismantling actions at the seaside plant. Courtesy photo

Coastal Commission approves demo of San Onofre Units 2 and 3

REGION — Earlier this month, the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a coastal development permit for Southern California Edison to get rid of Units 2 and 3 of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

The controversial decision was made at the California Coastal Commission’s (CCC) Oct. 17 meeting in Chula Vista. Edison’s proposed project would remove the majority of the onshore Units 2 and 3, the two giant containment domes that can be seen along Interstate 5 between Oceanside and San Clemente on Camp Pendleton land.

The decommissioning, dismantling and disposing process of the two units would take them to at least three feet below grade and deeper in certain portions of the site, according to CCC Senior Environmental Analyst John Weber. The two spent fuel pools, which are used to cool down decaying fuel, will also be removed.

The Coastal Commission approved the permit with 19 special conditions. Special Condition 3 requires Edison to provide an annual progress report by June 15 of each year during the estimated eight-year span of the project. Edison expects to begin major decommissioning work next year.

Additionally, Special Condition 3 requires Edison to submit an application amending the project’s permit within six months of completion and no later than June 1, 2028. The application will include a plan to remove the remaining above- and below-grade structures at the site, an assessment of coastal erosion and sea level rise, and an updated assessment of known and potential hazards of the remaining structures.

Edison recently resumed spent fuel transfer operations to dry storage over the summer. Transfer operations were previously halted due to an August 2018 incident when a canister of spent fuel got stuck on a ring as it was being lowered into dry storage and went unnoticed for nearly an hour. Though the incident was fixed, the canister could have fallen 18 feet.

After that incident, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched an investigation into Edison and issued a $116,000 penalty in March. In May, the NRC gave Edison the green light to continue fuel transfer operations, and Edison resumed in July.

Edison has two independent spent fuel storage installations (ISFSI) where they store the spent fuel. The second was added in 2015 after receiving CCC approval.

“That permit included a condition that Edison submit a cask inspection and maintenance program to make sure casks stay in conditions sufficient to allow onsite transfer and offsite transport,” Weber said.

Special Condition 19 was added the morning of the CCC’s hearing on the permit as Edison’s response to community concerns regarding spent fuel transfer. The condition ups the deadline for Edison to submit such a cask inspection and maintenance program to the CCC by March 31, 2020.

“The condition also includes funding for an independent third-party technical review of the program to assist the commission in its evaluation of the adequacy of this plan,” Weber said.

Weber anticipates bringing the inspection and maintenance program to the Commission in the summer of 2020.

CCC Deputy Director Alison Dettmer told commissioners that one of the benefits of removing Units 2 and 3 would create a place on site at a higher elevation to relocate the facility’s ISFSI. The current ISFSI is authorized for a total 20 years to end in 2035.

Commission Vice Chair Steve Padilla, who is also a Chula Vista council member, called the federal government’s inability to secure a permanent nuclear waste repository “a preposterous, absurd and egregious failure.”

“If we fail to move this forward, we just delay the decommissioning, we delay the ability to remediate this site ultimately for public use, we may create other unintended consequences, and at the same it’s almost intolerable to have it remain,” Padilla said. “It’s an inexcusable situation.”

Donna Gilmore, a San Onofre safety activist, told commissioners during the public hearing that the canisters currently in storage have been damaged but to an unknown degree.

“We should wait until after they inspect all the canisters to make sure they are transportable,” Gilmore said. “Then we can talk about a permit to destroy buildings. There’s no urgency, the only reason they (Edison) want to do it is money.”

David Victor, chair of the SONGS Community Engagement Panel, told commissioners that the “safest place by for the spent fuel is in those canisters stored in this facility.” He also cautioned about the “non-solutions” to the issue of spent fuel storage at SONGS that have sprung up in the last year.

“In the slip stream of the shut down of fuel transfer operations last year … many non-solutions have emerged and have now been discussed widely in the press, in our meetings, a variety of other places,” he said. “They include leaving the fuel in spent fuel pools, they include requiring an onsite hot cell, they require keeping the spent fuel pool in place and a variety of others.”

Though Victor acknowledges those ideas come form a good place, the key for everyone is to focus on the “long-term aging management of the spent fuel and the integrity of that process.”