Dismantling SONGS, One Railcar at a Time, For Now

Railcar Loading at SONGS
Amanda Wood of SONGS Decommissioning Solutions watches as a Super Sack is lowered into a railcar.

Amanda Wood stands back and watches a super sack, a large flexible container ideal for disposing of bulky items and material, as it’s slowly lowered into a railcar outside the Unit 2 containment dome at San Onofre. Over the next seven years, this scene will be repeated many, many times.

Nearly one billion pounds of material will be heading to the EnergySolutions facility in Clive, Utah, as part of the dismantlement of SONGS, and Wood is managing its safe packaging and transport. Most of the material will go by railcar, but some by cask or cargo container. The material destined for Clive is Class A waste, the lowest level of radioactive material. Class B and C waste is destined for Texas. Non-radioactive material will go to Arizona. No waste material will remain in California.

“When you have one billion pounds of material to move offsite you want the most efficient and safe conveyance to do that, and that’s where the railcar comes in,” explains Wood, waste manager for SONGS Decommissioning Solutions, SCE’s decommissioning contractor. “One railcar is equivalent to six trucks that would be out on the highway. So, by putting all this material into railcars we’re reducing the amount of traffic on the roads and we’re also reducing air emissions.”

Environmental Focus

Delivery to the railcar is just one step in a detailed process that takes the environment into account all down the line.

“We’re very committed to protecting this pristine environment that surrounds us at SONGS through strict environmental controls of our work, and compliance with state and federal regulations,” said Ron Pontes, SCE’s Manager of Environmental Strategy. “That commitment doesn’t stop at the fence line, it encompasses the journey all the way to the final disposal locations.”

The shipping process begins by assessing waste generation activities, understanding the type of materials to be shipped, in order to sample and classify the material before packaging.

“When we’re inside containment, as they are generating this waste, we have Waste Package Certifiers who are verifying the material as it goes into those containers. It goes into a log and that way we can maintain an inventory, so we know where it came from and we know how to characterize the materials,” Wood said. From those specific waste streams, say Unit 2 or Unit 3 containment, a radiological analysis is performed to properly classify the material. Once the material arrives in Clive, verification samples can be performed and radiation dose rates for the shipments are verified.

The railcars themselves feature a 3,500 pound lid to ensure material stays inside for the journey. Called “Super Gondola Cars,” they feature higher sides to allow for high volume, low density material, such as metals or general deconstruction debris, and the super sacks.

The railcars travel with a lid that weighs 3,500 lbs. to ensure the material remains inside.

Increasing Capacity

A total of eight railcars left SONGS in 2020. By mid-year, nearly that many will be heading out every week, each carrying up to 200,000 pounds of material. Not since the days of Unit 1 decommissioning 15 to 20 years ago has the site seen this much rail traffic. And with the change comes a renewed focus on rail safety. New training programs were implemented to ensure workers know what to watch out for when sharing an area with 90-feet of rolling steel.

To accommodate the increase in rail shipments, five new rail lines will be constructed later this year. First, the site’s major office building will need to be demolished and cleared away. That work will begin in a couple months, but it brings up another challenge for Wood’s team – the small footprint of San Onofre. The plant was constructed on just 85 acres.

“So, when we’re tearing down buildings and creating waste, we’re creating piles of material that have to be moved out in a relatively quick manner. You don’t have the room or the footprint to stockpile material on site,” Wood said.

Not a Waste(d) Career

Amanda Wood
Amanda Wood, waste manager for SONGS Decommissioning Solutions

Wood got her start in nuclear as a janitor at the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee. While she only did that for eight weeks before moving into another nuclear job field, she saw opportunity in waste. “I used to just empty trash cans, now I empty all the trash,” she says with a smile. “I got into waste management 15 years ago. It’s a unique field. It’s challenging. Not everyone likes to do it, there’s nothing exciting about it, necessarily, but it has to be done and it has to be done the right way. I think that’s why I like it.”

Wood briefly worked on the decommissioning of the Zion Nuclear Plant on the shores of Lake Michigan in Illinois. Zion also featured two large reactors like San Onofre. Wood says they’ve incorporated the best practices learned there into the SONGS project.

Still, no matter what the job, Wood believes it’s the people who will make the difference, and she is proud of the team assembled to ship the material from SONGS. “Their commitment to safety, compliance, and a strong nuclear safety culture is the backbone to our success here.”

(Posted Feb. 25, 2021)

Railcar Shipments at SONGS