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Future of California Nuke Site: Cloudy, Not 'Gassy'

The now-closed 2,200 MW, 438-acre San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) could be totally shuttered and, decommissioned in 10 years, an official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) told a California state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee hearing in Sacramento Tuesday.

On the other hand, the utility majority owner/operator, Southern California Edison Co. (SCE), could take up to 60 years to get the job done, according to Michael Weber, NRC deputy executive director. On average, it has taken seven to 10 years to dismantle nuclear plants around the nation.

SCE has said using the site for gas-fired or renewable power generation is essentially off the table given decommissioning and waste disposal challenges, and the fact that the U.S. Defense Department owns the land on which SONGS sits on a portion of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base.

Following the decision to close the plant (see Daily GPIJune 11), NGI raised the possibility with an SCE spokesperson of developing gas-fired generation on the SONGS site during the decommissioning as a way to make up for some of the plant's robust baseload power and take advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transmission lines going in and out of SONGS that are now underutilized.

SCE's spokesperson suggested that state energy officials might have more to say about the potential additional gas-fired generation overall, but the utility has made it clear it plans to focus on "wire-related investments, while encouraging the independent power producer marketplace to compete for new generation investment."

The difficulties in doing anything in terms of alternative power generation at the SONGS site were further underscored by an Aug. 1 10Q filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission by SCE and its parent company, Edison International. SCE's early estimate for the total cost of decommissioning is $4.1 billion, of which $3.5 billion is already collected from utility ratepayer surcharges supporting a trust fund established at the start of SONGS' early operations.

Under its current long-term lease of the plant site property with the U.S. Marine Corps, SCE is obligated to remove all structures on the site, including the massive transmission infrastructure. The utility indicated on Tuesday at the state legislative hearing that it hopes to renegotiate those conditions with the Defense Department.

Given this situation and the fact that prescribed regulatory processes need to be followed at both the federal and state levels, planning some alternative power generation uses for the SONGS site appears to be unlikely.

SCE just began the federal process at the NRC with a June 7 certification that the utility permanently abandon any efforts to generate power from SONGS Units 2 and 3 (Unit 1 was closed and decommissioned 20 years ago); and a July 22 confirmation that the radioactive fuel rods have been removed from the two reactors.

At the same time, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has started a multi-year set of proceedings to determine if and how much SCE utility customers will have to pay to cover costs for the period from the beginning of last year when the two SONGS units were shut down and the end of decommissioning. The CPUC also decides when and how much of the decommissioning trust funds will be applied.

Other possible sources of coverage for some of the costs will be from insurance and actions now being sought by SCE against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the manufacturer of the flawed replacement steam generators that ultimately led to SONGS being closed (see Daily GPIAug. 5).

 In the first half of next year, SCE said it will submit its detailed decommissioning plan.

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