The San Onofre nuclear plant / File photo by Megan Wood

Last week, we learned that the organization charged with involving the public in the latest developments at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, is getting a new chairperson

It’s called the Community Engagement Panel and they regularly meet with the public about the decommissioning, or dismantling, process of the now permanently closed nuclear plant and the efforts to store the plant’s 3.55 million pounds of nuclear waste. 

This made me wonder how that decommissioning and storing process is going. Here’s what I found. 

First, some background: Most San Diego residents are familiar with the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The plant is located south of San Clemente on Camp Pendleton and has become a landmark for San Diegans driving to and from the region. 

The plant is owned by utility company Southern California Edison but hasn’t produced energy since 2012 after a leak in a steam generator tube led to its permanent closure.  

For the past several years, SoCal Edison has been dismantling the plant, a process known as decommissioning. Once that process is complete, the land will go back to its owner, the U.S. Navy.  

Before that can happen, though, there’s the issue of the 3.55 million pounds of nuclear waste currently sitting inside the facility. 

The latest: Manuel Camargo, principal manager of the San Onofre Decommissioning Project, said 50 percent of the plant has been decommissioned so far. The San Onofre Decommissioning Project was created by SoCal Edison. 

As for the nuclear waste, also known as spent nuclear fuel, the Department of Energy is moving forward with a plan to transport the fuel into a temporary storage facility. Once that happens, officials can complete the decommissioning process. 

Decommissioning of the Plant Is Carried Out in Three Phases

  1. First, after allowing the spent nuclear fuel to cool for a few years, the decommissioning team packaged the spent fuel into seal-welded stainless-steel canisters and transferred it to an onsite storage system. That transfer was completed in 2020, Edison International spokesperson Jeff Monford wrote in an email. 
  1. Next is the demolition of above-ground structures like pressure vessels, pumps, motors, fans, cables and structural steel, which are removed from the buildings, packaged and sent offsite for disposal. The rest of the concrete structures are then demolished and transported to a disposal facility in Utah.  
  1. Remaining underground structures will be decontaminated according to federal guidelines for cleanup of the site. The team anticipates this to be completed by 2028, Camargo said. 

The final phase of decommissioning and site restoration will occur after the spent nuclear fuel is removed from the site.  

SoCal Edison expects to start bringing the containment buildings down in 2026.

The big storage issue: By now, you’ve probably gathered that without a place to store the spent nuclear fuel, the decommissioning can’t be completed. And there’s a reason it’s been so hard to find storage space: The federal government doesn’t have a single designated place in the United States to permanently store and/or dispose of spent nuclear fuel. 

Let’s rewind to 1982 when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act became law. It established a national program for the disposal of highly radioactive waste and supports the use of deep geologic repositories to store and/or dispose of that waste. 

A deep geologic repository is essentially a cavern a couple thousand feet below the Earth’s crust where the spent fuel would be placed, and it would stay there forever. It’s a way to store the waste while avoiding the contamination of the air, ground and underground water.   

In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole permanent deep geologic repository for the nation’s commercial nuclear waste. The government did this without actually asking Nevada, and Nevadans were not happy. 

Opposition grew in Nevada, and in 2009, the federal government terminated the Yucca Mountain program, leaving no disposal site for the nation’s commercial nuclear waste. 

So, until a permanent site is established by the federal government, the Department of Energy is stepping in. 

“We are focused on consolidating all this spent nuclear fuel across the country in one or more sites so that we can reduce the number of locations where it exists across the country, which is greater than 70,” said Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary of the Department of Energy. 

The department is working to provide these sites, called consolidated interim sites, in the next 10 to 15 years to store the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. 

Officials are planning to use consent-based siting to establish these storage facilities, meaning only cities and jurisdictions that are willing and able to store the spent nuclear fuel will be considered and chosen. 

But these storage sites will be temporary. 

“This would only be part of the solution,” Camargo said. “Eventually, you need to permanently isolate the spent fuel from the biosphere, and there’s international consensus that the best way to do that is in a deep geologic repository.” 

The Department of Energy also needs approval from Congress to create these interim storage sites because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act would have to be modified to allow for it. It will also be up to lawmakers to eventually amend the act and establish another permanent deep geologic repository for spent fuel. 

A few different groups are now working together to get this done: the Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Congressional Caucus established by Rep. Mike Levin; the Department of Energy; and the Spent Fuel Solutions coalition, which includes San Diego County, Orange County, Riverside County, SoCal Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and the City of Riverside. 

In Other News 

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect when SoCal Edison expects to start bringing the containment buildings down. A spokesperson originally provided an incorrect year range.

Tigist Layne is Voice of San Diego's north county reporter. Contact her directly at or (619) 800-8453. Follow her...

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  1. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission admits the thin-wall stainless steel canisters used at San Onofre and elsewhere in the U.S. are vulnerable to stress corrosion cracking. They state once cracks start they can grow through the wall in 16 years. Canisters cannot be inspected for cracks. Each canister holds roughly the radiation released from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Other countries use thick-wall metal casks 10″ to over 19″ thick. Thin-wall canisters are 1/2″ to 5/8″ thick. Until these thin-wall canisters are replaced with thick-wall casks none of us are safe. References and more information everyone needs to know about this at

  2. The federal government considers SNF “one of the most hazardous substances on earth,” and the thin wall canisters only have a design life of 40 years. Leaving the SNF buried so close to the ocean is not an option. The “rich men North of Richmond” need to get their heads out of the sand and figure out a viable solution before these thin wall canisters start to fail.

  3. These are the questions that no one is asking is: How many semi-trucks does it take to move 3.55 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel? How many train cars does it take to move 3.55 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel? Do you want a train cars full of spent nuclear fuel moved past your multi-million dollar coastal home? Do you want semi-trucks full of spent nuclear fuel driving through your community on the freeway? The reality that none of politicians and pro-nuclear power people want to acknowledge is that the spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is already too dangerous to move off the site, because nobody wants dangerous spent nuclear fuel in their neighborhood.

  4. What this article does not mention is that there is a Unit 1 reactor vessel and head that is still on site. Eventually, the Unit 2 and 3 reactor vessels and heads which are bigger than Unit 1, will be removed from the containment domes. The only way there is going to be a “consent based site” is if a whole lot of money is offered to the state which will agree to take some of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. Do you expect anyone to volunteer to have a nuclear waste dump in their state for free? Don’t think so!

  5. What is happening at Sano nuke plant is the same song & dance that will continue for ad nauseum….nothing good & no agency, state, amendment, repository, length of time, persons in charge, federal….you name it will ever make the waste go away or be safe under any conditions because that’s what the harsh reality is. Thicker casks ? Unthinkable until they start leaking & leak they will.

  6. This article is just another disgraceful media puff piece, scripted by nuclear industry consultants and Community Engagement Panel (CEP), promoting phony propaganda about public safety that is not true. Actually, the main myth is about the actual short service life of the thin walled Holtec dry storage casks at San Onofre (SONGS), which is only 40 years (instead of the false claim of a 60-year design for service life, and highly exagerated claims about redundandant safety systems, safety inspection, and leak detection system.) This huge technical discrepancy on service life has been totally disregarded by CEP members and NRC, despite ongoing public comment and legitimate criticism by independent safety experts for nearly 2 decades. This article perpetuates a false illusion of safety and security that is an extreme disservice to the public, that actually jeopadizes the safety and security of millions in southern California and far beyond. Informed readers demand that your news reporters actually publish articles that report the truth (with facts by independent experts), and go beyond the biased puff piece PR articles prepared by nuclear industry consultants and contractors. At San Onofre, public stakeholders are also placed at risk because the SCE utility still refuses to commit to construction of an onsite hot cell, as a necessity to handle the readily foreseeable eventuality of damaged fuel from prolonged storage of high burnup fuel that SONGS dry storage systems were not designed for, and the more aggressive effects of stress corrosion crascking than were forecast.

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