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San Onofre nuclear power plant's fuel rods to remain on site for years


The containment building of Unit 3, foreground, with Unit 2 containment building in the background, at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The station was closed permanently a year ago and is in the process of being decommissioned.
MARK RIGHTMIRE , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Where we get our electricity

Regulatory officials are considering whether more natural gas plants should be built in Southern California to make up for the loss of the San Onofre nuclear plant.

Orange County's electricity comes from two utility companies – Southern California Edison and, in South County, San Diego Gas and Electric. Both channel power from area power plants or purchase power from outside the region.

• Regional power plants include a mix of natural-gas fueled plants and renewable sources, such as solar and wind.

• Anaheim provides power to about 10 percent of the county's population.

• "Peaker" plants that run at times of peak demand also produce power.

• A small amount of Edison's power grid comes from the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona.

Even after the twin domes along I-5 are gone and the San Onofre nuclear plant is mostly a memory, fuel rods hot with radioactivity will remain behind in rows of tomb-like casks – perhaps for decades.

The shuttered plant is in the early stages of an estimated $4 billion decommissioning process, the dome’s reactors now empty of fuel and sealed.

Massive turbines that once pumped electricity through the Southern California power grid are silent. Giant steam pipes once too hot to touch are cold.

And a small crew walks the darkened halls, machine shops and empty yards, readying the plant for a decades-long dismantling.

“There’s something called ‘cold and dark,’” said Jim Madigan, Southern California Edison’s technical adviser to the plant’s chief nuclear officer, describing the ultimate goal of the decommissioning process. “The decommissioning project manager says now we’re kind of dim and cool.”

Madigan, a 33-year Edison employee accustomed to giving tours of the shut-down plant to public officials – but not to the public – begins a tour with a walk past towering white tents that once temporarily housed 640-ton steam generators.

The generators were switched out for brand-new ones in a $670 million upgrade between 2009 and early 2011. But the generators proved to be defective.

That kept both of the plant’s reactors shut down after January 2012. As costs and uncertainties mounted, Edison announced the permanent closure of the plant on June 7, 2013.

Now Edison is embroiled in a dispute over costs with the manufacturer of the generators, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

NUCLEAR RODS

Madigan passes along a perimeter fence topped with barbed wire overlooking the ocean. The narrow path below, sometimes used by beachgoers, is still watched closely by security guards in towers with green-tinted windows.

He walks through a gateway beneath a huge, sliding crane that once serviced the plant’s turbines, but is now “mothballed.” He stops to peer into a pool of water called a forebay, where fish pulled in along with ocean water for the plant’s cooling system swim calmly.

They’re awaiting a ride in a “fish elevator,” then a trip back to the ocean. An occasional savvy sea lion wanders in to catch the fish, Madigan says.

“When they’re ready to leave, they climb in the elevator,” he says. The elevator lifts fish out of the pool so they can be returned to the ocean.

The ocean-water cooling system is still operating, but no longer to cool the plant’s steam generators. Now it is used only to cool the two pools that house the plant’s spent nuclear fuel rods, which will stay in the pools for several years before being moved to dry cask storage.

The system once pulled in more than 1 billion gallons of ocean water per day. Now it’s down to about 25 million gallons.

Going into the plant through a sealed door, Madigan winds his way up a stairway to a slanted window that looks down on the power plant’s control room.

The room is full of panels, buttons, screens and banks of blinking lights and used to be bustling with reactor operators. But now two or three operators, with little to do, engage in quiet conversation.

Next is a trip into the bowels of the plant.

ONCE STEAMING HOT

Catwalks offer plunging views of a labyrinth of pillar-like pipes, some marked “MS” for main steam.

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