SAN DIEGO -- It took 32 months to complete but the transfer operations that moved canisters filled with spent radioactive fuel, or waste, from wet storage pools to a newly constructed dry storage facility at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station wrapped up Friday.
Shortly before 5 a.m., workers lowered the 73rd and final canister into its assigned enclosure at the north end of the plant, known as SONGS for short.
At commercial nuclear plants, after fuel used to generate electricity loses its effectiveness, operators place the assemblies in a metal rack that is lowered into a pool, typically for about five years. Once cooled, the fuel can be transferred to a dry storage facility, which is generally considered a safer place for it.
Officials Southern California Edison, the operator at SONGS, said completing the transfers is a key part of the company's eight-year plan to dismantle most of the structures at the plant, which has not produced power since 2012 and is being decommissioned.
"The safe completion of this storage campaign ... ends the largest canister loading campaign ever in the U.S.," Vince Bilovsky, Edison's deputy decommissioning officer, said in an email. "But our work won't truly be done until all canisters at SONGS are relocated off-site to a federally licensed storage or disposal facility."
Longtime critics of Edison were not cheering the news, though.
"It's a sad day," said Ray Lutz, national coordinator for the advocacy group Citizens' Oversight. "People say, well, (the waste issue) is fine right now and we'll deal with it later. But this is what they've said ever since they started this nuclear industry -- we'll figure it out later, the five favorite words."
Transfer operations at SONGS began in January 2018 but seven months later, one of the 50-ton canisters was accidentally left suspended while being lowered into its storage cavity. Resting almost 20 feet from the floor, the canister was left perched on an inner-ring of the cavity for about 45 minutes, unsupported by rigging and lifting equipment.
The canister was eventually lowered safely and Edison officials said workers and the public were in no danger if the canister had fallen. The incident, which came to light after an industrial safety worker came forward six days later at a public meeting, led to a special inspection by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The commission later fined Edison $116,000 and chided the company for failing "to establish a rigorous process to ensure adequate procedures, training and oversight guidance."