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Going Soon: San Onofre's Unit 1 Reactor

Nuclear power: Planned decommissioning, 13 years ahead of schedule, raises significant environmental and safety concerns.


Owners of the San Onofre nuclear complex are speeding up plans to dismantle a long-mothballed reactor, creating major environmental and safety concerns more than a decade before they were expected.

Southern California Edison hopes to begin dismantling San Onofre Unit I as early as next year, 13 years sooner than planned, in part to save money and to take advantage of knowledge possessed by workers familiar with the plant before they retire. Known as decommissioning, the process is an expensive and time-consuming one that means removing the reactor vessel and numerous other radioactive parts and storing them safely.

The reactor will take six to eight years to dismantle, at an estimated cost of $460 million. The money has already has been set aside and no rate increases are anticipated at this time, Edison officials said. The reactor's two neighbors, the more modern Units II and III, will keep generating electricity until 2013 or later.

News of the impending project signals a new and expensive phase in nuclear plant technology. To date, operators of only 10 commercial nuclear plants nationwide have begun or completed the dismantling process, many of them at smaller and less powerful plants than the 450-megawatt San Onofre reactor.

Edison officials say the process is safe.

"We're not doing anything novel here," plant spokesman Ray Golden said. The techniques planned for San Onofre are similar to those used to dismantle large industrial plants, such as cutting through concrete and piping, he said.

Unit I gained fame as California's oldest commercial nuclear reactor, starting operations in 1967 on a swath of land wedged between Interstate 5 and the Pacific Ocean just south of San Clemente. It was closed in 1992 because it had grown less efficient with time and needed millions of dollars in improvements. But Edison repeatedly has said it would not be decommissioned until its two neighboring reactors were shut down.

Now company officials have changed their minds, notifying the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Public Utilities Commission that they hope to begin decommissioning next year.

That decision was based on several economic issues, plant spokesman Ray Golden said Thursday. As time goes on, the costs of disposing of contaminated parts is expected to grow. "The longer you wait, the higher the cost will be for materials," he said.

A special decommissioning fee was collected from ratepayers for decades, meaning that Edison now has the money available to pay for the work--invested funds that have grown with recent rises in the stock market, Golden said.

Moreover, Edison is cognizant that its work force is aging, and that staff members well-versed in the plant's history and technology will retire in coming years.

Edison owns 80% of Unit I, while San Diego Gas & Electric Co. owns the remaining 20%.

The NRC, which has final authority for decommissioning, will hold a public meeting next Thursday to outline the new plans, and both federal regulators and Edison officials will be on hand to answer questions. The meeting will run from 7 to 9 p.m. at the San Clemente Community Center, 100 N. Calle Seville, San Clemente.

Most of the Unit I materials are not highly radioactive, NRC spokesman Breck Henderson said. An exception is the used fuel still stored on site in a specially designed pool.

Plans call for transferring that fuel into steel and concrete containers called "dry casks" that would continue to be stored at the site and are too heavy to be carried away by thieves.

"You're not worried about terrorists getting ahold of these things," Henderson said.

Lower-level contamination could be found in the steam generators, the pressurizer and some piping, he said. "There's quite a number of tons of debris that has to go to a waste site."

San Onofre Unit I may be the first plant nationwide to be decommissioned next door to two operating plants, raising some safety issues that have not been dealt with at other reactors.

But Golden said the San Onofre decommissioning does not pose a public health threat. The mothballed plant cannot cause a nuclear explosion, fuel and water has already been removed from inside its containment and electricity has been shut off. Even the spent fuel has cooled to the point where it does not need to be stored in water, he said.

A nagging question facing all nuclear plant operators is the severe lack of storage space for both high-level and low-level nuclear waste nationwide, and questions of how to ship it.

The Unit I reactor vessel, for instance, weighs several hundred tons and contains enough radioactivity that it currently can be stored in only one spot in the nation, clear across the continent in Barnwell, S.C. It is too heavy for road or train transit, meaning that it either would have to be transported by water or cut into pieces before shipping.

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