The Coast News Group
Dennis Morris, shift manager in the SONGS control room, explains how he and his crew have monitored operations at the plant for decades. Morris has been at SONGS for 37 years. Photo By Samantha Taylor.

End of an era at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

CAMP PENDLETON — In 10 years time, the two giant domes on the beach visible from Interstate 5 between San Clemente and Oceanside will be gone.

In late October, the California Coastal Commission approved a permit for Southern California Edison to demolish Units 2 and 3 of its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). Demolition will take out the majority of the site, including office spaces separate from the two units as well as its two spent fuel pools, which are used to cool down decaying fuel.

Major demolition work will begin in January, according to Nuclear Regulatory Affairs Manager Al Bates. By mid-summer 2020, all of the site’s spent fuel will be in dry storage.

Demolition work will begin from the north side of the plant. It will move on to take out the turbine buildings and control buildings. Crews will then “nibble away” at the dome-shaped containment buildings, Bates said.

The demolition process will take about nine years with the domes to go last.

The building that houses Edison offices on site will be gone by next year. Bates said a rail spur and large yard area that will be used for readying the transport of spent fuel off site will replace the office building.

The majority of waste from demolition consists of the material that makes up the plant’s buildings today.

“There’s a lot of concrete and steel,” Bates said.

There will be approximately 25 million cubic feet of concrete, metal and other materials that will go. There will also be about 6.3 million cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste and about 8,242 cubic feet of higher levels of radioactive waste.

“Only a small portion of the site is radioactive,” Bates said.

All of the waste will be taken out of California to sites like La Paz, Arizona; Clive, Utah; and Andrews, Texas, depending on the waste’s level of radioactivity.

The highest radioactive waste — about 1,800 cubic feet — comes from certain parts of the nuclear reactor. Those pieces will be cut up and put in a canister and kept on site until the federal government is ready for the rest of the spent fuel.

The entire demolition process costs $4.4 billion, with $1.3 billion going to obtaining the spent fuel, $1.9 billion to removing most of the plant and $1.2 billion to restore the space for future use.

So, what will remain on the plant’s site after most of it is gone? Very little, according to Bates.

The switchyard located on the plant site is one thing that will stay due to its role as an “important portal” connecting the electric grid from the north to south. The two independent spent fuel storage installations (ISFSI) where spent fuel is kept in dry storage will also remain as well as the seawall.

“The rest will look like a field 30 feet above sea level, which is the height of the seawall,” Bates said.

Edison will also need a permit to remove its submerged conduit that sits below the sand thousands of feet out in the ocean.

The spent fuel dry storage will remain on site until the federal government is ready to store it somewhere else. The Holtec ISFSI are licensed until 2035 while the NUHOMS ISFSI is licensed until 2023. Edison will apply for relicensing if the government has yet to make its decision on where to put the country’s spent nuclear fuel.

Edison anticipates that all spent fuel will be in dry storage by next year. Once it is, Edison’s licensing for the SONGS space will be changed to an ISFSI-only licensing through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Today, SONGS is a shell of the nuclear plant it once was. Units 2 and 3 are eerily quiet inside, devoid of any whirring machines that once made it difficult to hear the person standing next to you.

The control room that manages everything that goes on in the plant is also a quiet space compared to its heyday.

“Back when we had two units running, you could see the reactors … back then you had to have three personnel in each unit, you had a supervisor, two reactor operators at any given time,” said Dennis Morris, shift manager in the control room who has worked at SONGS for 37 years. “Phones rang, you had the alarms going off essentially testing what we did, monitoring everyday — now it’s a lot quieter, but we’re still monitoring and testing.”

Morris said it was hard to walk through a quiet turbine building the first time without hearing any noise coming from them.

“All I could hear is crickets and cold iron,” Morris said. “It’s hard.”

Bates has come and gone from SONGS over the years, but he was first at the plant in 1980 before the reactor units were even built. He also spent time working in the control room alongside Morris.

Rather than being sad about seeing the plant go, Bates said he is proud of the work that people like Morris have put into it over the years. He is also proud of the amount of energy generated at the plant during its time.

“It’s virtually impossible to generate this much electricity that’s carbon-free,” Bates said. “There’s no other way to do it.”

Editors Note: The original version of this story inaccurately stated that Edison’s licensing for the SONGS space would be changed to an ISFSI-only license through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission between 2026-29. This will happen as soon as all spent fuel is in dry storage, which is anticipated for next year. The original version also listed that there is expected to be approximately 36.7 million cubic feet of concrete, metal and other materials resulting from the demolition, along with 3.6 million cubic feet of low-level waste and less than 25,000 cubic feet of higher levels of radioactive waste. These numbers have been changed to reflect actual expected figures.