San Onofre: NRC lays out nuclear decommissioning plan for public

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A couple stands near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.

About 120 people turned out for a public meeting in Carlsbad Thursday to hear about the decommissioning of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a process that could take decades and is expected to result in the longterm storage of spent nuclear fuel on site.

The plant has been shut down since January 2012 after faulty steam generators damaged tubes inside one of the reactors, allowing radioactive steam to escape. In June, Southern California Edison, which owns the facility, moved to close it permanently.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission rented space in a large hotel ballroom with room for more than 1,000 people, anticipating far more attendees than actually turned out. Previous meetings concerning San Onofre have drawn large crowds.

RELATED: Archive of first NRC public hearing into nuclear plant shutdown

During the meeting, NRC staff laid out the timeline for the decommissioning process, the costs involved, and how the storage of highly radioactive waste will be managed on site. Initial preparation for the decommissioning can take one to two years.  That includes de-energizing electrical systems among other work. NRC resident inspectors are expected to be on-site during that period.

Subsequent steps involve placing radioactive fuel rods into deep pools to allow them to cool. That can take seven years or more. The rods are then transferred to dry casks, where they could remain on site for centuries or longer.

The plant used a type of "high-burn" fuel rod, which gives off more heat and radiation than normal fuel rods. Some experts say "high burn" nuclear waste can add extra demands on longterm storage containers.

"The NRC does agree that there is currently no way to monitor the behavior of fuel inside a sealed cask," Blair Spitzberg, NRC's Chief of Fuels Safety, told the audience. "We are actively monitoring the efforts of industry and the Department of Energy to better understand fuel aging mechanisms."

How much of the spent fuel is at San Onofre now wasn't shared.

A new citizens group called the Coalition to Decommission San Onofre — a partnership among San Clemente Green, the Sierra Club and other organizations based in San Diego and Orange counties — has formed to track the decommissioning process, and members were present on Thursday. 

"We are here today in hopes that the NRC will make San Onofre a flagship project for the safe and sane cleanup of America's effort to decommission our old and dangerous nuclear fleet and its highly radioactive problems," said coalition member Gene Stone.

Thursday's event was informational and not considered an official step in the decommissioning process. 

The California Public Utilities Commission has scheduled a hearing on San Onofre Tuesday in San Diego. The commission is considering adjusting rates charged to customers during the time the plant was taken off line between January 2012 and June 7 of this year. 

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