20-11-03 Reactor move around Cape Horn put off until next month
By Matthew T. Hall
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
A federal review has forced Southern California Edison to postpone moving its huge, retired nuclear reactor from San Onofre until at least December.
The revelation came in a letter Edison sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation this month that was made public Tuesday.
Transportation officials have been reviewing plans since July to ship the 770-ton reactor by barge around South America to a South Carolina burial site. State regulators had approved the move for as soon as this month, but the shipment also requires an exemption from certain federal packaging and transportation regulations because of its size and weight.
The exemption was granted before but is being reconsidered because of a change in the reactor's route.
In a 12-page letter dated Nov. 7, an Edison official said the review has left the company planning the reactor vessel move for no sooner than next month. The letter reads, "Given the delay to the commencement of the transport, it is now unlikely the voyage would start prior to December."
Edison, the majority owner of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, decided to shut down Unit 1 in 1992 after concluding that upgrades would be too costly. The company is now in the $600 million process of decommissioning and cleaning up the reactor and the land around it.
When it leaves the power plant, the reactor vessel, packed with concrete and sealed in a canister, will be transported south 15 miles over mostly sand to meet the barge at a boat basin on Camp Pendleton. Edison must time the move to avoid the April to October breeding seasons of two protected bird species.
Unit 1's spent fuel was removed and stored on site, and other waste has been shipped to burial sites. Operators initially planned to ship the reactor vessel by rail but reconsidered because of cost and liability issues.
Passage through the Panama Canal was later ruled out because of the reactor's excessive weight, making the trip around South America the best route left to Edison officials.
But that route has problems that could force Edison to abandon plans to ship the reactor anywhere, according to Tom Clements, a senior member of Greenpeace International's anti-nuclear campaign.
In a letter sent to the Transportation Department one week ago, Clements said he had concerns that authorities had failed to notify other countries or planned adequately for salvage operations in case of an accident at sea.
Edison has said it notified the State Department of its plans and asked the agency to inform American embassies in countries along the route. But Clements said the shippers should notify each country's government and consult with them about potential salvage plans.
"The salvage plans are not very strong and will cause concern particularly by Argentina and Chile," Clements said in a phone interview yesterday. "They're playing a risky game if they're not consulting" with other countries.
He said he also worried that Chile and the United States could be involved in a confrontation if the barge leaves international waters and travels within 200 feet of the country around the tip of Cape Horn as Edison has said it plans to do in documents submitted to the federal government.
An Edison spokesman and the company's project manager were unavailable for comment.
In filings with the Transportation Department, the company said it contracted with a Chilean law firm specializing in maritime matters to get legal support in Chile and the firm advised Edison that officials would not oppose the transit around Cape Horn.
The Transportation Department regulates hazardous-material shipments over U.S. roads, rails and waterways. It granted an exemption for the oversize radioactive shipment last year when shippers planned to send the waste to South Carolina by rail, but the new route prompted additional review.
Transportation Department officials raised concerns last month that the shipment could sink at sea and sought additional input from three other federal agencies. The State Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded first, and the Coast Guard e-mailed comments yesterday.
Transportation Department spokesman Joe Delcambre declined to make any of those documents public, saying they would be released at the same time after a copy of the Coast Guard's comments were received by mail.
Delcambre said the hazardous materials team has no timetable to complete its review.