For the record:
4:34 p.m. Aug. 15, 2022: This story has been corrected to show that 66.7 million pounds of material has been shipped out this year alone.
The scheduled eight-year project to dismantle the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station began at roughly the same time the COVID-19 outbreak hit the U.S., but the project continues at a steady pace, according to the joint partnership group in charge of demolishing the shuttered power plant.
"I always say these schedules are like Whac-A-Mole at an amusement park — you have a critical path, you beat it down and another one comes up," said Rich Kalman, executive sponsor at SONGS Decommissioning Solutions. "We've had some challenges at the beginning of the job but we've also identified a lot of different opportunities (to speed things up) so ultimately we developed a renewed schedule and we're tracking to that schedule."
Demolishing a nuclear power plant is a massive and complicated job and officials taking part in a quarterly update hosted by Southern California Edison on Thursday night said about half of all above-ground buildings have been knocked down.
More than 2,100 shipments of 128.4 million pounds of material have been moved out of SONGS so far, with 66.7 million pounds going out just this year at the 84-acre site of the plant, which is called SONGS for short.
Dismantlement is expected to run through the year 2028 and by the time the job is dome, almost 1.1 billion pounds of equipment, components, rebar, concrete, steel and titanium will be removed. About 80 percent of the material is considered radioactive.
Most of the shipments go out by rail car. By the completion date, about 5,100 cars will exit a multi-track railyard that workers have constructed in an area that used to house SONGS offices.
In April, demolition work was put on hold after a worker wearing a safety harness suffered a shoulder injury after falling about 5 feet into a vault opening. The worker was treated and released at a local hospital and is recovering at home. Kalman said two other workers suffered minor injuries in the most recent quarter — a leg injury to one and a finger injury to another — but both are back in the field.
"Our goal is zero," Kalman said.
The vast majority of the plant's debris is labeled Class A waste, the lowest level of radioactive material. Most of the rubble will go to a disposal facility in Clive, Utah. Class B and C low-level waste gets sent to a site near the town of Andrews in West Texas. Non-radioactive material goes to Arizona.
Rail shipments are monitored by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation. Similarly, environmental and building inspections at SONGS are conducted by a host of local, state and federal agencies that include the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control and U.S. Environmental Protection Administration.
"Usually every week, there is some regulator here looking at something," Kalman said, adding that many of the visits are unannounced.
Debris classified as Greater Than Class C waste will remain at SONGS. The material will be transferred into canisters and placed horizontally at a dry storage facility on the north end of the plant that currently holds 50 canisters of spent fuel.
In the past three months, two canisters of Greater Than Class C waste have already been transferred and 10 more will be moved by the time the dismantlement effort is completed.
Next door, a more recently constructed storage site holds 73 canisters of waste from Units 2 and 3.
The pair of distinctive domes at SONGS, each 190 feet high, is expected to be gradually taken down starting at the end of 2026 or early 2027.
By the time dismantlement is completed, all that is expected to remain will be the two dry storage facilities; a security building with personnel to look over the waste; a seawall 28 feet high, as measured at average low tide at San Onofre Beach; a walkway connecting two beaches north and south of the plant, and a switchyard with power lines.
The switchyard's substation without transformers stays put because it houses electricity infrastructure that provides a key interconnection for the power grid in the region.
SONGS, however, will not be considered fully decommissioned as long as the canisters of spent fuel remain.
More than 3.55 million pounds of spent fuel dating back to the time when the plant was generating electricity for Southern California utility customers remains near the beach on San Onofre because — as is the case at nuclear plants across the country — the federal government has not found a permanent repository to store the roughly 86,000 metric tons of spent fuel that has built up over the decades at commercial nuclear facilities.
Yucca Mountain in Nevada had been slated to take the waste but the Obama administration cut off funding for the site in 2010, following years of protests from lawmakers in the Silver State who had long opposed the project.
The dismantlement will be paid with a $4.5 billion decommissioning fund that built up over the years through rates paid by Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric customers when SONGS provided electricity.
"Any excess in the decommissioning fund at the end of the project will go back to customers," said Doug Bauder, Southern California Edison's chief nuclear officer.
SONGS has not produced electricity since 2012 after a leak in a steam generator tube led to the closing of the plant.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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