Update: Decommissioning of the San Onofre Nuclear Plant

The following is a Q&A with San Onofre Site Vice President Tom Palmisano.

November 18, 2013 | By Maureen Brown

On June 7, Southern California Edison (SCE) announced the closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant. We recently sat down with San Onofre Site Vice President Tom Palmisano for an update on the plant's decommissioning process. 

Q: What is the status of San Onofre decommissioning?

A: We have completed initial notifications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that certify San Onofre has permanently ceased operating and that we have removed fuel from the Unit 2 and 3 reactors. We are very early in the decommissioning planning process, have substantially reduced staffing levels at San Onofre and remain committed to sharing updates regularly with stakeholders. We anticipate filing an initial decommissioning plan with the NRC by mid-2014 outlining the scope, schedule and budget for decommissioning.

Q: Who pays for decommissioning and will my utility rates be affected?

A: The owners of San Onofre have already collected more than $3.6 billion of the estimated $4.1 billion needed to decommission San Onofre. At this time, Southern California Edison projects no change in customer rates as a result of the San Onofre shutdown. We have dramatically reduced expenses, including cutting 900 jobs, which has offset the higher costs to purchase replacement power following the San Onofre shutdown.

Q: What’s next?

A: Our primary focus continues to be development of an initial decommissioning plan known as a Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR). In addition to submitting a PSDAR to the NRC next year, we plan to update our decommissioning cost estimate and submit our plan to manage used nuclear fuel.

Q: What will happen to the used nuclear fuel at San Onofre?

A: We will continue to safely store used fuel on site, as we have for more than 30 years, following best industry practices and subject to ongoing NRC oversight. San Onofre’s safe and secure storage uses a combination of technologies: enclosed, steel-lined concrete pools filled with water (spent fuel pools) and sealed stainless steel canisters housed in reinforced concrete structures (dry cask storage). In addition, we maintain on-site security measures at San Onofre, as required by the NRC, to protect the health and safety of employees and the public. Federal emergency management officials announced in October that SCE and 500 regional emergency planning participants had demonstrated their ability to protect the health and safety of the public if a radiological emergency should occur at San Onofre.

Q: Will used nuclear fuel remain at the San Onofre site even after decommissioning is completed?

A: Interim storage at nuclear plants such as San Onofre is necessary because the federal government failed to fulfill its contractual obligations to open a permanent spent nuclear fuel facility. SCE, like other nuclear plant operators, successfully sued the federal government for this failure. SCE has received $112 million from the federal government, and has proposed to the California Public Utilities Commission that the bulk of this amount be refunded to customers. A federal court recently ordered the NRC to resume the licensing process for a permanent nuclear storage facility at Yucca Mountain but the funding and timing for that effort are uncertain.  Dry storage of used fuel remains on site at other nuclear plants that have completed decommissioning because the federal government has not taken title to the fuel.

Q: How much used nuclear fuel is stored at San Onofre?

A: The uranium pellets that were used to generate power are in sealed fuel rods that comprise a used fuel assembly. San Onofre has 2,776 fuel assemblies in spent fuel pools in Units 2 and 3 and about 800 Unit 2 and 3 assemblies in dry storage. In addition, there are about 400 Unit 1 used fuel assemblies in dry storage.

Q:  What is the NRC’s “waste confidence” rule?

A: Waste confidence is the term the NRC uses to characterize its generic determination regarding the environmental impact of storing used nuclear fuel beyond the licensed life of a nuclear power plant.  In 2010, the NRC expressed confidence that the fuel can be stored safely and without significant environmental impacts for 60 years beyond the plant’s licensed life. However, a federal appeals court in June 2012 vacated the NRC determination, saying it was insufficient under that National Environmental Policy Act.

Q:  How does the court ruling on waste confidence affect San Onofre?

A: As a practical matter, we don’t expect this ruling to affect San Onofre decommissioning. The NRC has proposed changes to the waste confidence rule and is seeking public comment through Dec. 20. The NRC has scheduled public hearings throughout the country to solicit public input, including one on Nov. 18 in Carlsbad, Calif. After the public comment period, the NRC will submit a final proposed wasted confidence rule to the five NRC commissioners for review and approval. We understand that the court decision primarily affects new plant licensing and existing nuclear plants seeking to renew their operating license. It is not expected to affect our timetable for decommissioning San Onofre. What we don’t know – and likely will not know for some time – is when the federal government will accept and remove the used fuel from the San Onofre site, as required.

Q: Does San Onofre have high burn-up nuclear fuel and, if so, how does that affect the way you store this used fuel?

A: Like many other nuclear plants, San Onofre has taken advantage of improvements in fuel technologies that allow nuclear plants to extract more energy from the fuel by achieving higher burn-up levels. SCE is licensed to use this fuel and store it in the spent fuel pool, and our dry storage canisters are licensed separately to store high burn-up fuel. Once this fuel is removed from the reactor, it is stored in accordance with NRC regulations and in the same manner as San Onofre’s other used fuel — initially in a steel-lined, concrete spent fuel pool and later in dry cask storage.

Q: What happens to the land at San Onofre after the nuclear plant is dismantled?

A: SCE leases the San Onofre land from the Navy and will return to it the Navy once decommissioning is complete, subject to NRC approval. Once San Onofre’s license has been terminated and the NRC has released the site for unrestricted use, the area can be used in any way permissible by federal, state and local laws.

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