San Onofre comes down, piece by piece, as Diablo Canyon’s life is extended.
Amid flex alerts and power outages, “green nuclear” fans urge California to embrace next-generation reactors, even as permanent radioactive waste disposal remains a distant dream.
Folks who’ve worked at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station report twangs of yearning and regret: Would San O get a great big bear hug from the governor if it were still churning out kilowatts? Ah, no matter: It’s been cold for an entire decade now. Billions have been spent on its tear-down — prompted by an expensive new pair of steam generators gone awry — and billions more will be spent before that scenic bluff over the blue Pacific returns to the U.S. Navy.
It’s a matter of hammers, chisels and torches — pretty much sheer, brute force, Edison has said. And as we’ve noted over the years, tearing down a nuclear plant is expensive!
The latest “decommissioning fund” accounting from operator Southern California Edison was blessed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Aug. 29 and shows that more than $2.5 billion has been spent to dispatch the three reactor units that have churned out power at San Onofre through the end of 2021 — and that another $3.3 billion of work remains to be done.
The good news is that there’s still some $4 billion in the decommissioning trust funds — yes, power users, you’ve paid into this fund to make it all possible — while the not-so-good news is that the cost assumptions are based on the somewhat fanciful notion that the feds will start accepting nuclear waste for permanent disposal in 2031.
That’s, um, nine years away. Try not to guffaw, or weep.
“This assumption may be updated periodically due to the ongoing uncertainties regarding the availability of a permanent repository for spent fuel,” says Edison in the footnotes.
Fun fact of the day: It cost about $11 billion in 2020 dollars to build San Onofre, and it will cost about half of that to make it disappear.
Waste: The final frontier
San Onofre’s iconic twin domes are expected to come down in 2025, attacked from the bottom, growing shorter and shorter until what’s left collapses.
When decommissioning is done toward the end of this decade, all that will remain is the switch yard connecting San Diego Gas & Electric’s system to Edison’s, the seawall and public walkway along the beach, and, um, the dry storage systems for nuclear waste.
They hold about 3.6 million pounds of radioactive material. On the beachfront. Along a major highway. In an active earthquake zone. Close to 8 million people.
- What remains from the original reactor, long decommissioned, are 395 fuel assemblies in 17 canisters, and one canister of lower-level waste (stuff with more short-lived radionuclides). Edison assumes the last of that will be gone by 2037.
- From the newer Unit 2, there are 1,726 fuel assemblies in 53 canisters in dry storage; and from the newer Unit 3, there are 1,734 fuel assemblies in 53 canisters in dry storage.
- The lower-level waste from Units 2 and 3 is slated to go into canisters for dry storage this year and next, and the last of the waste is expected to be gone from San Onofre by 2051.
The plan is for the dry storage systems to themselves be decommissioned, and the land returned to the Navy for unrestricted use, by 2053.
What if it takes longer than that? Well, the U.S. Department of Energy is on the hook. It signed contracts with the nation’s utilities more than a quarter-century ago, promising to accept commercial nuclear waste for permanent disposal beginning in 1998, in exchange for payments into a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for it all. Ratepayers like you and me kicked in some $50 billion for that fund, of which more than $40 billion remains after the Yucca Mountain fiasco (Nevada has no nuclear plants and doesn’t want everyone else’s nuclear garbage, thank you very much).
Of course, the DOE has accepted exactly zero ounces of commercial nuclear waste for permanent disposal, payments into the Nuclear Waste Fund were halted nearly a decade ago, and the U.S. continues to dither on this point. Edison “will continue to seek recovery from the judgment fund for spent fuel costs incurred due to the federal government’s partial breach of contract. We will also work through the Action for Spent Fuel Solutions Now coalition to encourage the federal government to fully meet its obligations in this area,” spokesman John Dobken said.
Some folks say we get the kind of government we deserve. If folks want this junk hauled away, they’ll have to demand that their lawmakers finally take action. It’s not a technical problem: The nation’s high-level defense nuclear waste has a permanent grave in an underground salt bed more than 2,000 feet below the earth’s surface at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
We know what to do. Let’s do it already.