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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Decomissioned Nuke

Air Date: Week of

As nuclear power plants across the country age and their licenses begin to expire, how to dispose of their radioactive wastes is still a controversial and unresolved issue. Jeff Hoffman looks at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Plant in California, which is one year into the eight year process of decommissioning Unit I.


CURWOOD: Nuclear power plants were designed to run for about 50 years. Right now there are 100 or so reactors in the U.S., and some of the oldest are getting ready to be taken out of operation and dismantled. It's a rather mechanical exercise, except for one thing. The spent fuel used to run nuclear power plants remains radioactive for thousands of years. The radioactivity has to go somewhere, and as Jeff Hoffman found on a recent visit to a California plant, no solution is ideal or inexpensive.

(Surf, a child shouts)

HOFFMAN: San Onofre sits at the northern tip of San Diego County, a few miles from the city of San Clemente. Sun-baked mountains tumble abruptly onto a narrow coastal plain, giving way to a long sandy beach. Despite the natural beauty, a first-time visitor can't help gazing at the two giant concrete domes of the San Onofre nuclear generating station, which loom on a bluff a few hundred yards away. But the plant's barbed wire fences and warning signs don't seem to trouble Byron Olson, a local surfer.

OLSON: It's been there since I was a kid. Doesn't bother me at all. A lot of my friends' dads were working on that project when they were building it. And reactor number one's been there ever since I was born. So, it doesn't pose any health hazard that I know.

HOFFMAN: Generations of surfers have been flocking here since the 1950s. A generation from now, the three-reactor plant will likely be gone.


HOFFMAN: Units two and three, massive reactors which generate electricity for two-and-a-half million homes, are licensed to operate to the year 2022. But Southern California Edison, which owns the plant known as Songs, could shut them sooner if the company finds the facility can't compete with oil and natural gas-fired plants in California's deregulated energy market. In 1992, Edison turned off unit one, a much smaller reactor built in the mid-1960s, after deciding it didn't make sense to pay for upgrades mandated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

GOLDEN: As we walk around, you'll start to see the plant just starting to come apart. But we're a long way from completing the job.

HOFFMAN: Spokesman Ray Golden say the plant is one year into an eight-year decommissioning process that will cost $460 million. The money was raised from utility customers who for years have paid pennies from each monthly bill into a special fund. Edison could have mothballed unit one for up to 60 years under NRC rules. Instead, it opted to dismantle the reactor. Ray Golden explains the decision.

GOLDEN: If you dismantle a plant in the year 2000 versus dismantling a plant in the year 2020, it's most likely going to be cheaper now than then.

HOFFMAN: But there's also an important human factor.

GOLDEN: Some of our workers today have been around since this startup and construction of unit number one, so they're into their 60s. And we want to take advantage of some of these workers. If we waited till 2020, they would all be retired and their knowledge base would be gone.

HOFFMAN: Mike Lisitza, assistant plant manager for operations, has worked at Songs for 25 years.

LISITZA: It's something really quite, to watch a plant that, you know, provided a good service and a good source of electricity to California. Of course, now shut down and now being decommissioned. There's a little bit of sentiment into that, of course.

HOFFMAN: When the Air Force veteran arrived to work at the plant it had a staff of about 80 and six security personnel. It was an informal workplace. The engineers used to roast hotdogs on the beach. Today the facility employs several thousand people and is protected by machine gun-toting guards. Lisitza wears a button with a picture of his granddaughter that reads, "My reason to be safe." He laments the fact that Americans have soured on nuclear power.

LISITZA: Here is a good, reliable, non-polluting source of energy. Okay, now granted, you've got the waste that you eventually have to store for thousands of years. But still, there's nothing going into the atmosphere, there's no smokestack, your eyes aren't burning from being here. And so, it's a very good source of electricity. It would be really nice if we built more nuke plants, but I don't think the U.S. population is quite ready for that. But perhaps some time in the future.

HOFFMAN: David Lochbaum, a nuclear power expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., says that's unlikely.

LOCHBAUM: In the past, nuclear power plant owners could get guaranteed rates of returns, really, no matter how much it cost to build their plants. Under restructuring and deregulation of electricity, if they can't produce electricity at competitive rates they're going to be forced to close. So that's why nuclear power plants aren't likely to be built any time soon. The entire fleet of reactors will have to be decommissioned. It's only a matter of when.

HOFFMAN: As long as plants properly dispose of radioactive material, decommissioning poses little risk to surrounding communities, he says. But Lochbaum adds that workers do face health hazards.

(Clicking; a door closes)

PIERCE: Some places are dirtier than others, and I ended up getting a dirty spot.

HOFFMAN: Robert Pierce has been working here for nine months, removing insulation from inside the containment sphere. Like all workers who go into the can, the most contaminated part of the dormant reactor, he wears protective clothing and carries a dosimeter, a device that measures radiation. Pierce has just come out to have his boot decontaminated. He says the pay is good and the risks are overblown. Still, he admits his wife worries.

PIERCE: Radiation, you know, like the asbestos. The asbestos, it takes a long time before it hits you. It's like a time bomb.

(Much clicking; a loud beep)

HOFFMAN: You're not worried about that, though.

PIERCE: No. You take as many precautions as you can, and it pretty much eliminates the bulk of it.

(Various ambient voices)

HOFFMAN: As unit one comes apart, every ounce of concrete and every inch of pipe must be checked for radiation. Material that's hot must go to one of a handful of dumps for low-level radioactive waste. In four years, workers will slice through a three-foot-thick concrete shield, cut a hole in the steel sphere, and remove the reactor vessel. It will be shipped via the Panama Canal to a site in Barnwell, South Carolina, the only facility in the country licensed to handle highly-contaminated parts. But nobody yet knows what to do with the most dangerous byproduct of nuclear power, spent uranium fuel, which will remain extremely radioactive and a threat to human health and the environment for centuries.

(A bell rings)

HOFFMAN: Nuclear plants store rods containing spent fuel pellets in deep concrete holding pools. But some of these pools have leaked, including the one at San Onofre unit one. From 1981 to 1986, water leaked out of a stainless steel liner, possibly contaminating soil near the pool building. Songs spokesman Ray Golden says the leaks have been addressed. Eventually, he says, the rods will be put in steel casks and encased in concrete.

GOLDEN: We could store here for another 100, 200 years. The problem with that, in our opinion, would be, it would mean the care-taking responsibilities for future generations. So we think the appropriate thing to do is to geologically isolate it in some rock formation that's remained stable for thousands of years, engineer safeguards around it, and move it from San Onofre to that central location.

HOFFMAN: Golden refers to the Department of Energy's plan to entomb spent fuel from all the U.S. nuclear plants in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But after spending years and billions of dollars, scientists aren't certain they can prevent radiation from seeping into the ground and water. Meanwhile, some activists say on-site storage isn't acceptable, either. Ray Shadis lives on the Maine coast, just downwind of the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear plant. He sits on an advisory panel monitoring the plant's decommissioning.

SHADIS: We really don't have a huge information base on which to assert that this is going to be safe for 20 years or 30 years or 50 years or 100 years. A hundred nuclear power stations are going to eventually have to be decommissioned. And basically, that means there will be 100 high-level nuclear waste dumps scattered around the country.

HOFFMAN: Stuart Richards, an NRC official who oversees decommissioning, says that overstates the problem.

RICHARDS: Generally, you could say there's really no threat there, as long as the facility stores the fuel in accordance with the regulations and good engineering principles that we've set forth.

HOFFMAN: Still, Maine activist Ray Shadis argues the communities around nuclear plants should take an active interest in decommissioning. That will help make sure the NRC enforces its regulations, and ensure that plant owners don't cut corners to save costs.


HOFFMAN: In Southern California, some residents are paying closer attention. In August, when NRC officials came to San Clemente for a routine public meeting, a few dozen citizens came out to pepper them with questions. They complained they weren't getting enough information about the nuclear power plant that sits just down the road from their homes.

(Voices shout at the beach)

HOFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman in Santa Onofre, California.



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