COAST CITIES — Opposition to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shifted into high gear in 2011 after an earthquake-generated tsunami caused a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Efforts by local environmentalists to shut down SONGS intensified less than a year later when vibrations in steam generator tubes resulted in a small radioactive leak.
Majority plant owner Southern California Edison announced June 7 that SONGS would be permanently shut down.
But with every bit of radioactive waste produced by the plant since 1983 stored on the site, is the area any safer should a natural or manmade disaster hit?
“U.S. nuclear plants are among the most secure, safe facilities in the world,” SCE spokeswoman Maureen Brown said. “That was true last Friday (when the announcement was made) and it’s true today.”
Even though the plant will no longer produce energy, “strict regulatory oversight continues and that includes spent fuel storage,” Brown said. “There are very specific federal regulations that must be complied with to ensure facilities are secure.”
The white containment domes along Interstate 5 will be in place indefinitely as decommissioning the plant will be a decades-long process.
The spent fuel rods must be cooled in a containment pool for at least five years. After that they are surrounded by inert gas in a sealed steel cask. That goes into a transfer container that is sent to a storage vault with a door that is securely shut.
The Department of Energy proposed storing spent fuel from U.S. nuclear plants at a facility in Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But the project is being abandoned due to legal challenges, concerns over how to transport nuclear waste to the facility and political pressures.
Radioactive waste from SONGS remains there in dry-cask storage. Brown said she didn’t know the exact number of spent fuel rods that are there.
The estimated $4 billion cost to decommission the facility will be shared by SCE, Southern California Gas & Electric and the city of Riverside, which own about 78 percent, 20 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
Brown said SCE’s share is about $3 billion, but about $2.7 billion is in a fund that has been collected from ratepayers over the years.
The plant hasn’t produced power since problems with the generator tubes were discovered in January 2012. Since then Edison announced plans to lay off more than 700 workers. About 1,500 people were employed when the shut-down announcement was made and the company now expects to reduce its workforce to 400.
Existing employees could be used for the decommissioning process, Brown said, but more specialized contractors may be needed at some point.
At its peak, SONGS provided energy to about 1.4 million homes. Service was essentially uninterrupted last summer without the plant.
At a June11 press conference to discuss the power outlook for this summer, SDG&E officials said “adequate electric supplies are lined up” to meet area needs, however, customers are encouraged to conserve, especially during extreme conditions.
“SDG&E has already made plans to meet customer needs safely and reliably without SONGS,” Jessie Knight, the company’s chief executive officer, said.
He said SDG&E will be “marginally more challenged” this summer but “we do have adequate reserves.”
Officials said brown outs or black outs won’t be more likely without SONGS. They will just be handled differently, using other power sources.
“We have to be prepared to face challenges without SONGS,” Knight said. “We think we have covered all of our bases but conservation is key.”
“We don’t call for conservation unless we absolutely need it,” added Caroline Winn, SDG&E vice president of customer services.
“Given the safety concerns and uncertainty surrounding operation of SONGS, I applaud Edison’s decision,” Toni Atkins, state Assembly majority leader, said. “As SONGS winds down its operations, it will be important that safe handling of nuclear material be a priority, that both ratepayers and employees be treated fairly, and that we continue to work to ensure an adequate power supply for Southern California.”