San Onofre nuclear plant: Owners plan advisory panel, outline next steps

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The owners of the San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Clemente said Friday that they plan to create an advisory panel as part of the decommissioning of the seaside facility. 

The plant's majority owner, Southern California Edison, said it wants the advisory panel to include elected officials from San Diego and Orange counties and from cities surrounding the plant, along with anti-nuclear activists, the military and academics, among others.  

"We're envisioning 18-to-20 people on the Community Engagement Panel," said Ted Craver, CEO of Edison International, which is the parent company of Southern California Edison.

Carver said he has talked to some prospective panel members. It's possible the company could announce members of the panel next week, Carver said.

KPCC has learned that at least one member of the panel has already been selected.

"I was asked to be on the panel and I accepted," said Gene Stone, with San Clemente-based Residents Organized for a Safe Environment.

SCE announced on June 7, 2013 that it would retire the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. At the time of the announcement, the plant had been shut down since January 2012 after a small radiation leak  led to the discovery of unusually rapid wear of tubes that carry radioactive water in the plant's two reactors. Inspections found wear from friction and vibration in 15,000 places, in varying degrees, in 3,401 tubes inside four replacement generators.

RELATED: Timeline: San Onofre nuclear plant shutdown

The nuclear plant, on a bluff between Interstate 5 and the Pacific Ocean, is in northern San Diego County and a few miles south of San Clemente. SCE is the majority owner, but San Diego Gas and Electric and the city of Riverside are co-owners. The land is leased from the U.S. Navy.  

Craver said the company has three guiding principles for the decommissioning process. The panel falls under one of those, engagement — the other two are safety and stewardship. 
  
"Safety of course has to be number one," said Craver. "We have radioactive material at the site and so safety absolutely has to be number one. We certainly would like to speed up the process of getting the radioactive material through the spent fuel pools and into dry cask storage, which makes it a little more stable. We would like to make sure that we do this as efficiently as possible, consistent with public health and safety."  

Craver said the company has a $2.7 billion decommissioning fund. 

"The Nuclear Decommissioning Trusts have been set up going back to the 1980s," Craver said. "We've invested those funds wisely so that we actually have substantial funds for doing the decommissioning. Under the law, if we're able to do it cost effectively, to the point where there are excess funds left at the end of all of this, then those funds go back to the ratepayers, so we have a real stewardship responsibility."

The California Public Utilities Commission has an ongoing investigation, apart from the decommissioning, into whether customers of Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric are due refunds from the nuclear plant's non-operation prior to SCE's announcement in June 2013 that it would retire the facility.  

"That's an ongoing cost proceeding before the Public Utilities Commission," said Craver. "There are four phases in it and they're still in the first phase of that process, so it will several months to work its way through."  

Environmental groups and some residents in San Diego and Orange counties have voiced concerns about the highly-radioactive waste being stored for decades on the property, but there is no nationwide nuclear repository in the U.S. The current policy is for spent fuel to be stored on nuclear plant sites. Craver said SCE wants to move the radioactive waste from spent fuel pools into dry cask storage "as quickly as possible."

"[Radioactive waste] would have to remain in stainless steel canisters in concrete structures indefinitely, until the federal government comes up with a solution for taking the dry cask storage containers," said Craver. "We intend to remain very active in urging the federal government to come up with that [storage] solution. We'd like to see the material off the site [San Onofre] into permanent storage."

Craver said the company hopes to send its plans for moving ahead with decommissioning to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by next summer.

He said the plans include how the company will manage radioactive material with their "Irradiated Fuel Management Plan," steps for tearing down existing structures and disposing of that material, and "an updated site-specific decommissioning cost estimate."

"We want to have the panel set up and work with the panel as we complete those three documents and submit them to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," said Craver.     

The company also announced last year that it would substantially reduce the 1,500 employees at the plant. SCE said Friday that the site workforce has been reduced to 520, a reduction of more than 900 employees.

San Onofre's two reactors are among 18 across the U.S. undergoing decommissioning. 

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