A Nuclear Power Plant Goes On The Auction Block

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, Units 2 and 3. CREDIT: flickr/SoCal Edison
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, Units 2 and 3. CREDIT: flickr/SoCal Edison

In late March, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in southern California hosted a three-day nuclear auction, the first step in a decades-long decommissioning process for the recently shuttered generating station that will cost over $3 billion dollars, account for more than 1,500 jobs lost, and require the replacement of 2.2 gigawatts of power. Forced to close due to the failure of expensive equipment upgrades, the closure of the plant is illustrative of the turning point at which many nuclear power plants in the U.S. find themselves as they confront aging infrastructure, expensive repairs and upgrades, environmental risks, and price competition from natural gas, wind and solar power.

Available to the highest bidder at the auction was everything from overflowing toolboxes to heavy machinery to control panels reminiscent of the one Homer Simpson uses at his job as a nuclear technician. Community members joined seasoned dealers in scouting out turbine heat exchangers, eye-washing stands, and some 2,700 other items for personal use, professional use or resale on the 130-acre site about 50 miles north of San Diego.

SONGS was a powerful community presence long before its guts were sold off and dispersed throughout the region, and it will continue to influence local decision-making for many years to come. The first reactor went into operation in 1968, the decommissioning process will go on for at least two decades, and the radioactive waste will be stored onsite for the foreseeable future. Southern California Edison (SCE), the co-owners of the nuclear plant along with San Diego Gas & Electric Company, organized a Community Engagement Panel to keep residents engaged in the decommissioning process beyond the activity of the auction — there are around 100,000 people living within ten miles of SONGS and nearly nine million within 50 miles.

Around 300 people attended the first meeting held in late March, which was overseen by David Victor, director of the UC-San Diego Laboratory on International Law and Regulation, who was chosen to chair the panel because of his proven leadership abilities and experience bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders.

“We had almost an hour of community input, and almost all the comments were civil,” Victor told ThinkProgress about the first meeting. He believes that with decisions to close more nuclear plants across the U.S. in the next few years, people can learn from the process going on at SONGS.

“One of the most important things is that different communities find strategies that work for that community,” Victor said. “Whenever you do a big engineering project, you need a mechanism for getting community input in a serious way. That’s what we’re doing.”

How Do You Close A Nuclear Plant?

Decommissioning a nuclear plant — an arduous and expensive process — is permitted to take up to 60 years by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), though officials at SONGS hope to have it done in a third of that time. Simply dismantling the plant will take several years, and then there’s the issue finding long-term storage for the spent fuel, which is radioactive. Storage of high-level radioactive waste remains a political quagmire with no resolution in sight, and for now the fuel rods remain on site at SONGS stored in specially made casks. SONGS closed down last year when a radioactive leak led to a shutdown shortly after a series of expensive upgrades had been made to two of the reactors. Upon further inspection, a number of repairs and safety concerns were noted, and SCE, 80 percent owners of the plant, made the decision to retire it rather than pursue the prolonged and expensive process of bringing it back online.

While SONGS must deal with certain unique challenges in the decommissioning process due to its proximity to urban populations and location along an earthquake fault line, other plants across the country looking at decommissioning face similarly daunting challenges. The recent closure of several nuclear power plants was the first in 15 years, and represents a departure from the buzz of a nuclear renaissance over the decade leading up to the March 2011 nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant.

“In the years following the major accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear power fell out of favor, and some countries applied the brakes to their nuclear programs,” wrote Ernest Moniz, now Secretary of Energy, in a November 2011 essay for Foreign Affairs. “In the last decade, however, it began experiencing something of a renaissance.”

Concerns about climate change and air pollution, as well as growing demand for electricity, led many governments to reconsider their aversion to nuclear power, which emits little carbon dioxide and had built up an impressive safety and reliability record. Some countries reversed their phaseouts of nuclear power, some extended the lifetimes of existing reactors, and many developed plans for new ones.

Moniz concludes that it would be a mistake to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits, a sentiment he stands by after becoming head of the Department of Energy last May. In February, Moniz announced the approval of a $6.5 billion loan to build two reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating nuclear site in Georgia. The plants mark the first new nuclear facilities in the U.S. to begin construction and receive NRC license in nearly 30 years. Cost overruns and delays have led to an organized resistance to the power plants, with Tea Party groups confronting Georgia Power last year over the monopoly’s reluctance to increase its use of solar power and for charging customers for the nuclear project’s finance costs before it produces power.

CREDIT: flickr/colinwood0
CREDIT: flickr/colinwood0

New nuclear power plants will take years to construct, so in the meantime, keeping old plants producing power for longer is a lot more economically appealing than building new ones.

“There’s talk about operating existing reactors from 60 to 80 years,” Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress. “Existing reactors have largely had their construction costs paid off. While there are still operating and maintenance costs to cover, and aging tends to increase costs and more and more components and structures must be replaced or refurbished, it is still often worthwhile.”

According to Lochbaum, risk failure over the lifetime of a plant reflects a “bathtub curve” in which material defects, assembly errors, and user error are highest early on during the break-in phase and later during the wear-out phase. At SONGS, management replaced expensive steam generators that were nearing wear-out in an attempt to manage risk — only to have the new generators break during the break-in phase. Lockbaum thinks good management can deal with the aging challenge effectively, as evidenced by the more than two-thirds of U.S. reactors that have been relicensed for 20 more years.

So, the greenfields will have large concrete casks holding spent fuel as a legacy or monument to the federal government’s enduring ineptitude.

“But the aging challenge can also spell doom, as it did at San Onofre,” said Lochbaum, and now the focus is on decommissioning. “The two main goals of decommissioning are to return the site to greenfield status without running out of decommissioning funds first.” Greenfields are areas of undeveloped land that can be used for agriculture, landscaping or just left to naturally evolve. “This goal cannot be met at most sites because the federal government has not provided a repository for spent fuel to go,” Lochbaum explained. “So, the greenfields will have large concrete casks holding spent fuel as a legacy or monument to the federal government’s enduring ineptitude.”

Nuclear Waste And Storage

High-level waste from a nuclear reactor is the used nuclear fuel left after it has spent several years in the reactor generating heat for electricity. This waste, which makes up about three percent of total radioactive waste from a nuclear plant but 95 percent of the radioactive content, is stored underwater in a storage pool for about five years before being transferred to a cask. The fuel can also remain in water for many decades awaiting more permanent storage in a geologic repository or reprocessing into recycled fuel in some cases. These repositories must be contained and isolated enough to minimize releases of radioactivity into the environment for tens of thousands to a million years.

In Sweden the Onkalo repository, in which a three-mile tunnel leads 1,200 feet underground to bedrock, will begin taking high-level nuclear waste in 2020 before being sealed 100 years later, not to be opened for 100,000 years. It’s hard to imagine building anything to last more than 20 times as long as the Egyptian pyramids have so far, and it turns out legislating that process can be nearly as challenging.

No state wants to be home to high-level radioactive waste, but every state with a nuclear reactor has to deal with it.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, meant to develop repositories for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, passed in 1982 and chartered the DOE with examining ten candidate sites across the country. Then, in 1987, it was amended to redirect the agency to only evaluate one single site: Yucca Mountain.

Around $15 billion has been spent by the federal government assessing Yucca Mountain as a place to store nuclear waste in the ground and it has been a rocky road all along. In 2002, President George W. Bush approved the dump site, with DOE submitting an application to the NRC to begin construction in 2008. However, under the Obama Administration, the DOE tried to withdraw the application from the NRC and Congress has since suspended funding for the program. The NRC denied the DOE’s request to withdraw the license application but did suspend work on the application, citing Congress’ move to defund the program. In the latest turn of events, last year the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a writ of mandamus to compel the NRC to resume the licensing process for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

The entrance to the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level waste repository site under construction in 2007. CREDIT: flickr/nuclear regulatory commission
The entrance to the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level waste repository site under construction in 2007. CREDIT: flickr/nuclear regulatory commission

There is widespread local opposition to the facility in Nevada that fuels political push-back. Nevada has no nuclear power plants. No state wants to be home to high-level radioactive waste, but every state with a nuclear reactor has to deal with it.

Victor said that in California some people are so frustrated with the lack of federal action that they are looking for options at the state level. However, considering all the political, legal and technical challenges surrounding the storage of nuclear waste — not to mention the cost — he thinks plants will have to deal with storing fuel onsite for quite a while.

“Speaking as an analyst, my guess is that a combination of lawsuits by utilities for the federal government failing to provide a permanent facility, fuel backing up at the sites, and community concerns will lead to more pressure for action,” Victor said.

Leaving Big Shoes To Fill

The closure of SONGS can be viewed as a microcosm of the broader debate going on across global governments and within energy and environmental communities about the pros and cons of nuclear power. In 2012, the year SONGS shut down, greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in California rose 35 percent. This was no coincidence, according to the California Air Resources Board, which attributed the jump partly to the natural gas coming online to generate electricity previously provided by SONGS, as well as a reduction in hydroelectric generation due to the drought. The plant’s closure also impacted wholesale electricity prices in the state — they rose 59 percent, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration ascribed largely to the SONGS outage.

When it was fully operational SONGS produced 2.2 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.4 million homes. Most of this power will be replaced, although there are efforts reduce demand and increase efficiency as much as possible. Everyone from legislators to local ratepayers have expressed concern over what the new power sources will be –- coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, wind, solar, or even wave power are all under consideration. In March, the California Public Utilities Commission gave some clarity to the future by unanimously approving SCE and San Diego Gas & Electric to procure up to 1,500 megawatts of new generation capacity by 2022. Just over a third of that power, 575 megawatts, must come from so-called “preferred sources,” which include anything other than fossil-fuel generation. The remainder, however, will be available for “any source” procurement, likely meaning the commission of some new gas-fired power plants, even though California does have regulations requiring utilities to consider preferred resources before fossil-fueled power plants.

While at SONGS the discussion revolves around what to replace nuclear power with, the broader nuclear debate focuses on using nuclear power to replace fossil-fuel powered generation. Some see it as an environmentally friendly power source that can be safely managed to provide clean, affordable power to millions, while others view it as an unwieldy and unnecessary gamble fraught with potential danger and complications that distracts from other renewable energy technologies. It’s part of the oft-touted “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, but what part?

In the fall, four prominent climate scientists wrote an open letter urging the environmental community to support the development of safe nuclear power to cut fossil fuel production, arguing that other renewables won’t be enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The countries where nuclear has dead-ended are market-based economies where the nuclear industry has simply been unable to deliver a competitive product.

“Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires,” Kenneth Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, James E. Hansen, and Tom Wigley state in the letter. “While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

While the scientists argue that the risks associated with expanded use of nuclear energy are far smaller than those associated with fossil fuels, ClimateProgress’ Joe Romm thinks that in the real world this isn’t what matters. In response to their letter, he wrote that the scientists miss a key point about nuclear power, “because it is so expensive, especially when done safely, the industry has no chance of revival absent a serious price on carbon.”

While solar power and wind power continue to march down the experience curve to ever lower costs — solar panels have seen a staggering 99 percent drop in cost since 1977 — nuclear power has been heading in the opposite direction … environmental groups have had little impact on the collapse of nuclear power in America. The countries where nuclear has dead-ended are market-based economies where the nuclear industry has simply been unable to deliver a competitive product.

The Nuclear Generation

100 nuclear reactors across 31 states in the U.S. generate about 19 percent of the country’s total electrical output and account for about one-third of worldwide nuclear power capacity. While cheaper electricity generation alternatives and costly maintenance and safety demands are putting the future viability of nuclear power plants in the U.S. in jeopardy, new nuclear plants are on the rise globally — especially in China where 28 are under construction, around 40 percent of the total number currently being built worldwide.

Guangdong nuclear power plant, Guangdong, China, 2007. CREDIT: flickr/ Hong Kong Nuclear Investment Co.
Guangdong nuclear power plant, Guangdong, China, 2007. CREDIT: flickr/ Hong Kong Nuclear Investment Co.

As part of China’s relentless drive to power a growing economy and urbanizing populace — and to limit debilitating local air pollution when possible — the country is planning to increase nuclear power capacity by nearly ten-fold by 2030 and to keep the growth going into mid-century. Another country in the region had a similar plan to rely on nuclear power for more of its electricity as a way of weaning itself off fossil fuels and creating a more sustainable, domestic supply of energy. That country was Japan, and those plans changed dramatically on March 11, 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami caused the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to destabilize and go into meltdown.

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 24, 2011, almost two weeks after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. CREDIT: AP/ AIR PHOTO SERVICE
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 24, 2011, almost two weeks after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. CREDIT: AP/ AIR PHOTO SERVICE

Before the disaster that sent radiation leaking into the region, Japan got about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and had plans to raise that to about half by 2050. Since then, the area surrounding the Fukushima plant has been struggling with radioactive water leaks, radiation-tainted soil, a hopelessly delayed cleanup schedule, and a disenchanted public. Even so, Japan’s current government is arguing that restarting many of the country’s currently disabled 50 nuclear reactors is critical to powering Japan’s future.

Radioactive contamination from the Fukushima fallout is expected to reach the U.S. West Coast sometime this year. Eventually the radioactive plume will reach the southern California coast and brush up against the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station. This will temporarily bridge the ocean-wide gap between two coastal communities caught in the crosshairs of one of the twenty-first century’s biggest dilemmas: how to provide everyone with power while at the same time managing climate change responsibly. Right now in the U.S. this question is playing out one nuclear reactor at a time, without a clear, long-term plan in sight.