San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
|San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station|
The station as seen from San Onofre State Beach to the north.
Location of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California
|Location||San Diego County, California|
|Coordinates||33°22′8″N 117°33′18″W / 33.36889°N 117.55500°WCoordinates: 33°22′8″N 117°33′18″W / 33.36889°N 117.55500°W|
|Status||Permanently shut down, planned decommission|
|Construction began||August 1964|
|Operator(s)||Southern California Edison|
|Nuclear power station|
|Reactor type||Pressurized water reactor|
|Units operational||2 × 1127 MW (permanent shutdown)|
|Units decommissioned||1 × 456 MW|
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) was a nuclear power plant located on the Pacific coast of California, in the northwestern corner of San Diego County, south of San Clemente, and situated in Nuclear Regulatory Commission Region IV. The plant is currently in the initial stages of preparation to be decommissioned after being closed in 2013 following the failure of replacement steam generators.
The nuclear facility is owned by Southern California Edison. Edison International, parent of SCE, holds 78.2% ownership in the plant; San Diego Gas & Electric Company, 20%; and the City of Riverside Utilities Department, 1.8%. When fully functional, the plant had employed over 2,200 people. The station, between the ocean and Interstate 5, is a prominent landmark because of its twin hemispherical containment buildings, designed to contain any unexpected releases of radiation.
The plant's first unit, Unit 1, operated from 1968 to 1992. Unit 2 was started in 1983 and Unit 3 started in 1984. Upgrades designed to last 20 years were made to the reactor units in 2009 and 2010; however, both reactors had to be shut down in January 2012 due to premature wear found on over 3,000 tubes in replacement steam generators that had been installed in 2010 and 2011. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently investigating the events that led to the closure. In May 2013 Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the modifications had proved to be "unsafe and posed a danger to the eight million people living within 50 miles of the plant,” and she called for a criminal investigation.
Southern California Edison announced on June 7, 2013 that it would "permanently retire" Unit 2 and Unit 3, citing "continuing uncertainty about when or if SONGS might return to service" and noting that ongoing regulatory and "administrative processes and appeals" would likely cause any tentative restart plans to be delayed for "more than a year." The company stated that "Full retirement of the units prior to decommissioning will take some years in accordance with customary practices. Actual decommissioning will take many years until completion."
Unit 1, a first generation Westinghouse pressurized water reactor that operated for 25 years, closed permanently in 1992, and has been dismantled and is used as a storage site for spent fuel. It had a spherical containment of concrete and steel with the smallest wall being 6 feet (1.8 m) thick. It generated 456 MWe gross, and 436 MWe net, when operating at 100% capacity.
In a ten-year project completed in 2011 and costing $671 million, Edison replaced the steam generators in both reactors with improved Mitsubishi steam generators. Because of the reactors' two-loop design, uncommon for such large reactors of that era, the steam generators are amongst the largest in the industry. A common shortcoming of these large steam generators was tube wear, leading to replacement being required earlier than their 40-year design life. The steam generators are the largest components in the reactor, and installing them required cutting a temporary hole in the concrete containment shell. The Unit 2 replacement was completed in 2009 and Unit 3 in 2011. The company estimated that the modernization would save customers $1 billion during the plant's current license period, which ran until 2022.
During its operation, SONGS provided about 20% of the power to large portions of Southern California.
The San Onofre station had technical problems over the years. In the July 12, 1982 edition of Time it was stated, "The firm Bechtel was ... embarrassed in 1977, when it installed a 420-ton nuclear-reactor vessel backwards" at San Onofre. In 2008, the San Onofre plant received multiple citations over issues such as failed emergency generators, improperly wired batteries and falsified fire safety data. Early in 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued its annual review of the plant, identifying improvements but noting that in the area of human performance, "corrective actions to date have not resulted in sustained and measurable improvement”.
According to the NRC, workers at San Onofre were "afraid they will be retaliated against if they bring up safety problems, something that's against the rules". As of 2011, according to the NRC, there had been progress on the issue and the problems were not considered a threat to the safety of plant workers or the public. However, in November 2011, there was an ammonia leak, and as a precaution company employees were evacuated from the area where the leak was found while the units continued normal operation.
A mid-cycle inspection report that was conducted from July 2011 to June 2012 revealed a few surprises including three incidents relating to human performance. An additional issue concerned a failure to develop procedures for a "cyber security analysis of electronic devices" that was later corrected.
In 2012 coolant fluid was found in the oil system of a backup diesel generator, which would have caused the generator to fail if needed. An internal investigation found "evidence of potential tampering", making sabotage by staff a possible cause.
Environmental risk and mitigation
Southern California Edison stated in 2011 that the station was "built to withstand a 7.0 magnitude earthquake directly under the plant". Additionally, there is a 25-foot tsunami wall to protect the plant from a tsunami that could be potentially generated by the active fault 5 miles offshore. The closest tectonic fault line is the Christianitos fault, less than a mile away, which is considered inactive or "dead", but other active faults in the vicinity might pose some threat.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's estimate of the risk each year of an earthquake intense enough to cause core damage to the reactor at San Onofre was 1 in 58,824, according to an NRC study published in August 2010.
S. David Freeman, the former head of the California Power Authority and "a longtime anti-nuclear voice", has described San Onofre (and Diablo Canyon) as "disasters waiting to happen: aging, unreliable reactors sitting near earthquake fault zones on the fragile Pacific Coast, with millions of Californians living nearby".
Unlike many pressurized water reactors, but like some other seaside facilities in Southern California, the San Onofre plant used seawater for cooling, and thus lacks the large cooling towers typically associated with nuclear generating stations. However, changes to water-use regulations may have required construction of such cooling towers in the future to avoid further direct use of seawater. Limited available land next to SONGS would likely have required towers to be built on the opposite side of Interstate 5.
Additionally, more than 4,000 tons of radioactive waste are stored at San Onofre.
The NRC defines two emergency planning zones around nuclear power plants: 1) a plume exposure pathway zone with a radius of 10 miles (16 km), concerned primarily with exposure to, and inhalation of, airborne radioactive contamination, and 2) an ingestion pathway zone of about 50 miles (80 km), concerned primarily with ingestion of food and liquid contaminated by radioactivity. The average prevailing westward wind direction at San Onofre blows inland 9 months of the year.
The 2010 U.S. population within 10 miles (16 km) of San Onofre was 92,687, an increase of 50.0 percent in a decade, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data for msnbc.com. The 2010 U.S. population within 50 miles (80 km) was 8,460,508, an increase of 14.9 percent since 2000. Three of the cities within 20 miles of the facility are San Clemente and Laguna Beach in Orange County and Oceanside in San Diego County. San Diego is 45 miles south of the facility, and Los Angeles is 60 miles north of the facility.
On June 22, 1980, in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, about 15,000 people attended a protest rally against the San Onofre nuclear plant that was organized by the Southern California Alliance For Survival. Among the speakers was physicist Michio Kaku, who noted that one of the reactor pressure vessels had been installed backwards and called on California governor Jerry Brown (then considered an environmentalist) to shut them down.
On March 11, 2012, more than 200 activists protested at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station to mark the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Speakers included two Japanese residents who lived through the Fukushima meltdowns and Raymond Lutz. The generators had been offline since January 2012, and speakers said they should remain off. Environmental and anti-nuclear activists gathered at Southern California Edison's Irvine headquarters in May 2012 calling for the San Onofre plant to be decommissioned.
2012 shutdown and subsequent closure
Unit 2 was shut down in early January 2012 for routine refueling and replacement of the reactor vessel head. On January 31, 2012, Unit 3 suffered a small radioactive leak largely inside the containment shell, with a very small release to the environment below allowable limits, and the reactor was shut down per standard procedure. On investigation, both units were found to show premature wear on over 3,000 tubes, in 15,000 places, in the replacement steam generators installed in 2010 and 2011. Plant officials pledged not to restart the units until the causes of the tube leak and tube degradation were understood. Neither unit was ever restarted. There were no blackouts due to the lack of SONGS electricity; however, more pollution was caused due to the use of natural gas plants used to make up for the power generation, and the additional cost has led to higher utility bills.
On March 27, 2012, the NRC issued a Confirmatory Action Letter (CAL) forbidding the plant to be reopened until the causes of its equipment problems are thoroughly understood and fixed. At the same time, Irvine Councilman Larry Agran called for the plant to be decommissioned, saying it should be decommissioned safely and as soon as possible. Concerns include “nuclear waste stored at the plant, health hazards from radioactive material, and inadequate evacuation plans”. Resolutions passed in neighboring cities Laguna Beach and San Clemente called for safer and more secure waste storage. San Clemente voted to request public information about radiation levels near the plant. Bob Steins, spokesman for Edison International, said “the company will work to prepare detailed responses to council and community member questions and concerns”.
In June 2012 the environmental group Friends of the Earth filed a legal petition with the NRC, asking that any decision to restart SONGS be considered a de facto license amendment requiring an adjudicatory public hearing, rather than a decision by the NRC commissioners. Friends of the Earth submitted evidence and sworn statements of John Large of the London-based nuclear consulting engineers Large & Associates, demonstrating that the steam generating tubing degradation was a generic fault of the Mitsubishi design and that, crucially, Edison's power derating of the two nuclear units would not lower the rate of wear or the risk of catastrophic tube failure. SCE and NRC Staff filed statements opposing the petition.
In July 2012 the NRC issued its final report, identifying ten issues that needed followup and stating “the plant will not be permitted to restart until the licensee has developed a plan to prevent further steam generator tube degradation and the NRC independently verifies that it can be operated safely." As of July 2012, the cost related to the shutdown had reached $165 million, with $117 million of that being the purchasing of power from other sources to replace the output of the plant. As a result, the Chairman of Edison International Ted Craver stated that there was a possibility that reactor 3 might be scrapped as "It is not clear at this time whether Unit 3 will be able to restart without extensive additional repairs".
In August 2012, Southern California Edison announced plans to lay off one-third, or 730, of the plants employees; the company said that the downsizing of the plant staff was planned more than two years before. Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility said that the layoffs showed that the company was not being honest about their plans for the power plant. Due to the shutdown, the NRC ended requirements to monitor non-operating systems.
In September 2012, Allison Macfarlane, the NRC Chairwoman, said that the plant would be down for a prolonged period, and that the fuel from Unit 3 would be removed in September 2012, due to significant damage to the unit.
On October 3, 2012, SCE submitted a "Unit 2 Return to Service Report" to the NRC. SCE stated it had taken corrective actions, such as plugging worn tubes and had preventively plugged additional tubes. SCE proposed a restart while administratively limiting Unit 2 to 70% power, intended to prevent excessive tube vibration, until a midcycle inspection within 150 days of operation. SCE reported that most of the excessive wear was in limited areas, due to higher speed and drier steam than computer modeling had predicted, and inadequate tube support at the U-bend. Analysis had concluded operating at 70% power would eliminate the conditions that caused excessive wear.
On November 8, 2012, the NRC decided to refer the Friends of the Earth hearing request to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. By November 2012, the cost of the outage was over $300 million, and discussion of restarting Unit 2 had been postponed. In December 2012, the last of the four old steam generators was transported to Clive, Utah for disposal.
In February 2013, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asked the steam generator manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to provide a redacted version of a report on the plant's steam generators for publication. The report described the changes made in the replacement steam generator, which included the removal of a support cylinder and changes to the tube support plates and anti-vibration bars, and the addition of about 400 tubes.
In December 2013 the NRC cited SONGS for failing to properly check the design of the steam generators whose failure caused the plant shutdown. The finding does not carry any fines or penalties but could complicate the utilities' legal position that they did nothing wrong. The California Public Utilities Commission is considering whether to order a multimillion-dollar refund to customers of the utilities.
Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruling
On May 13, 2013, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board issued its decision on the Friends of the Earth hearing request filed in June 2012. It determined the current NRC process on this issue constituted a de facto license amendment requiring an adjudicatory public hearing, for three independent reasons:
- the SCE proposal to limit unit 2 to 70% power is inconsistent with the license, so constitutes an amendment;
- unit 2 cannot safely operate within the full license scope, so the license needs to be amended;
- restarting the plant with the steam generator tubes in the current degraded state is outside historical experience, and the proposal to operate them at 70% power for a limited duration before reinspection constituted the regulatory definition of "tests or experiments", requiring a license amendment.
The Los Angeles Times reported that "Edison has signaled it may shut the plant down for good" should the company not be allowed to restart one of the reactors at 70% of capacity.
On May 28, 2013, Senator Barbara Boxer asked that the United States Justice Department investigate possible malfeasance by Edison officials, and released a 2004 letter by an Edison executive that expressed worries that the new steam generators, though similar, would not be "like for like" replacements and could lead to the same kind of potential "disastrous" issues that in fact led to the plant's shutdown in 2012. In making the request for a possible criminal investigation, Boxer's statement said "This correspondence leads me to believe that Edison intentionally misled the public and regulators in order to avoid a full safety review and public hearing in connection with its redesign of the plant." Edison denied any wrongdoing.
On June 7, 2013, Southern California Edison announced it would "permanently retire" Unit 2 and Unit 3, ending their attempt to restart the plant at a reduced capacity. The utility said it would cut the SONGS workforce from about 1,500 to some 400 employees, with most reductions "expected to occur in 2013." The company also said it would "pursue recovery of damages from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the supplier of the replacement steam generators", although the contract limited liability to $138 million and excluded consequential damages. The chief executive of Edison International explained that the current licenses expire in 2022, and with post-Fukushima requirements, which include re-evaluating earthquake vulnerability, it was uncertain renewal would be economic, so it made little sense making costly and politically difficult repairs now that would not make a return on investment before 2022.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein signaled approval of the decision to permanently close the plant, stating "I firmly believe this is the right thing to do for the more than 7 million Californians who live within 50 miles of San Onofre." However, Representative Darrell Issa, whose voting district includes the nuclear station, was more downbeat, saying "our communities now face the loss of employment for more than a thousand highly skilled workers and an essential local source of low-cost, clean energy." Issa also pledged to work to improve the prospects for nuclear power nationwide. In contrast, Sierra Club Director Kathryn Phillips applauded the move, saying in a statement that "We hope, especially, that the utilities will take this opportunity to help get more locally generated renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, into their portfolios."
According to figures from the California Air Resources Board, total greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in California increased by 35% in 2012, partly due to the early closure of San Onofre. Carbon dioxide emissions from the state's power generation facilities increased from 30.7 million tons in 2011 to 41.6 million tons in 2012. Such emissions had been steadily declining between 2008 and 2011.
Decommissioning San Onofre will take numerous years until the process is complete. In February 2014 Southern California Edison announced that it would be auctioning off non-radioactive equipment from the former nuclear plant the following March. In August 2014 SCE announced that decommissioning will cost $4.4 billion and take 20 years; spent fuel is to be held on-site in dry casks indefinitely.
Nuclear Waste Issue
In 1987, Congress chose Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, to be the site for storing nuclear waste. In 2008, the Yucca Mountain plan was terminated for political reasons.
The nuclear waste will be stored on site in San Onofre until Congress finds another location for a nuclear waste repository.
The nuclear waste from SONGS is currently in steel-lined concrete pools known as wet storage. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), nuclear waste must sit in these pools for about 5 years in order to cool. The nuclear waste then must be transferred into a more permanent, dry storage, consisting of 80 steel lined concrete monoliths that will be underground.
Southern California Edison decided on Holtec International to design the dry storage canisters. The canisters that will be designed by Holtec will be five-eighths of an inch thick. Most canisters currently in the U.S. are half of an inch thick, which means that the canisters designed by Holtec will provide more of a margin if degradation were to occur.
These steel-lined concrete monoliths right next to the Pacific Ocean exceed California’s earthquake requirements and Edison says they are designed to withstand fire and tsunamis.
The canisters are prone to cracking mainly because of chloride-induced, stress-corrosion from being close to the ocean. At the same time, there is no way to inspect the canisters for cracks. Kris Singh, president and CEO of Holtec, says that even if even if cracks could be detected, there is no way to repair them. Singh says that they are working on developing inspection methods for the underground canisters
As an added safety measure, Holtec is providing an extra canister that will be on site in San Onofre. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) will be using new technologies on these canisters in order to detect and protect from cracking. One method that EPRI believes will be the best method for chloride-induced, stress-corrosion cracking is to apply proactive aging management practices. According to EPRI, “These practices include using standard methods to classify the corrosivity of the site environment, monitoring the site specific absolute humidity, and planning for visual inspection of the canister surface in a timeframe based on the results”.
In July 2013 SCE started a 90-day dispute resolution process with Mitsubishi. The dispute resolution was unsuccessful, so a binding arbitration process run by the International Chamber of Commerce commenced in October 2013. SCE is claiming $7.57 billion (930 billion yen), but MHI argues that compensation is limited to $137 million by their contract.
In October 2015 the owners reached a $400 million settlement with their insurers for outages caused by the failure. SCE received $312.8 million, SDG&E $80 million, and the city of Riverside $7.16 million. The arbitration claim against Mitsubishi continued to be pursued through the International Chamber of Commerce.
In popular culture
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is shown in the 1987 film Made in U.S.A. directed by Ken Friedman and starring Adrian Pasdar, Chris Penn and Lori Singer. Passing reference is made to the design of the containment shields (which resemble breasts) in cult comedy The Naked Gun (1987).
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So, you need not worry that an earthquake originating on the Cistianitos fault will damage the San Onofre nuclear generating plant. That fault has not moved for at least 125,000 years, perhaps not since long before then. It is dead.
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Officials in nearby San Clemente and Laguna Beach — both within 20 miles of the San Onofre facility — have registered their fears after significant wear was found on hundreds of tubes carrying radioactive water inside the plant's generators.
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Karen Garland, a married mother of two who lives in Oceanside, 17 miles south of the plant, recalls the blackout that affected San Diego and Orange Counties last September.
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The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant rests on the Pacific Coast 60 miles south of Los Angeles and 45 miles north of San Diego, the second and eighth largest cities in the U.S. respectively. The nuclear power plant is within 50 miles of 8.5 million people.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.|
- Southern California Edison SONGS webpage
- San Diego Gas & Electric SONGS webpage
- "NRC: San Onofre - Unit 1". Nuclear Regulatory Commission. February 7, 2011. Retrieved 2011-03-17.
- "San Onofre 2 Pressurized Water Reactor". Operating Nuclear Power Reactors. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). February 14, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
- "San Onofre 3 Pressurized Water Reactor". Operating Nuclear Power Reactors. NRC. February 14, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-25.