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Spent Reactor's Voyage to Dump Canceled

Delays keep the decommissioned San Onofre unit from its burial in South Carolina, Edison says.

February 04, 2004|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Southern California Edison said Tuesday it would abandon plans to ship a decommissioned nuclear reactor to South Carolina this year and leave it at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station for now.

Edison spokesman Ray Golden cited "delays beyond our control" in the utility's decision to leave the reactor vessel -- entombed in steel and concrete -- at the beachside nuclear plant just south of the Orange County line. The delays made it impossible for Edison to meet a June 30 deadline for delivering the reactor for burial at a nuclear dump in Barnwell, S.C., Golden said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Greenpeace spokesman -- An article in Wednesday's California section about a decision by Southern California Edison to abandon plans to move a decommissioned nuclear reactor vessel from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station misspelled the last name of Greenpeace spokesman Tom Clements as Clement.

No decision has been made about when to try the move again, Golden said. By federal law, Edison must eventually dispose of the vessel.

The reactor was operational from 1968 to 1992. Workers removed its spent nuclear fuel in 1993. Later it was filled with tons of concrete and enclosed in a shell of steel and concrete.

Edison officials have been planning the move since 1999. Golden said Edison had spent "less than $10 million" just to prepare the reactor for transport. The dumping fee at Barnwell would have been $5 million, he said.

"Transporting the reactor involved a lengthy approval process by various federal agencies, including the State Department, Department of Transportation, Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the Coast Guard, among others," Golden said. "Because of this, we've missed the last window of opportunity that allowed us to transport the [reactor] vessel safely to Barnwell."

Last month's ruling by an Argentine federal judge would have made the trip riskier and longer, requiring that the 668-ton package remain at least 200 miles from that country's coast. The judge said Argentine law recognized an economic zone that protected marine resources up to 200 miles offshore, and his order would have forced the shipment into more treacherous waters around Cape Horn, known for severe weather.

Edison had until March to begin what was initially planned as a 90-day trip covering 11,000 miles from Oceanside to Barnwell.

Rather than hurrying to meet the June 30 deadline, set by a contract with the disposal site in South Carolina, "the right thing to do is to just leave it here for now," Golden said. "The reactor is perfectly safe here, and there are no environmental or security concerns," Golden said.

For now, Barnwell is the only facility in the United States where Edison can bury the reactor, classified as low-level nuclear waste. The only other facility, in Washington state, does not accept low-level nuclear waste from California. Barnwell is scheduled to close in 2008, meaning Edison has about four years to find a home for the reactor, Golden said.

"At some point, it will have to be buried, because it's radioactive material.... We will continue to explore options," Golden said.

Greenpeace spokesman Tom Clement said the environmental group welcomed Edison's decision not to move the reactor. Greenpeace activists in Argentina joined other environmental groups there in asking the government to keep the shipment outside that country's territorial waters.

"It was the right thing to do from an environmental and diplomatic perspective. The reactor vessel is a lot safer where it is. Environmental and security conditions are not a problem there," Clement said.

But San Clemente Mayor Susan Ritschel was not happy with Edison's change of plans. The city's residents, who have a nervous coexistence with the San Onofre nuclear plant, were looking forward to getting rid of the decommissioned reactor. Two other reactors remain operational there.

"We were looking forward to this being shipped to a permanent location far away from our community. We were glad to see it go. It's disconcerting having it here," Ritschel said. "We certainly don't want to be left with this in perpetuity."

But Don May, president of California Earth Corps, a San Francisco-based environmental group, said today's news was not all bad. "The best place in the world for that reactor is right where it is," May said. "That's where it does the least harm."

Times staff writer Dave McKibben contributed to this report.

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