Keeping the Focus on Safety during SONGS Dismantlement

Standing on the elevated Unit 2 turbine deck provides a snapshot of the current state of dismantlement work at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). In the foreground, a machine that resembles a mechanical dinosaur munches on the Unit 2 main transformers. Just a little further away, another excavator chips away at the walls of the Unit 2 diesel generator building, a seismically robust structure. The spaghetti strands of thick rebar that strengthened the building now pile up amidst the rubble. In the distance, the AWS Building, the main office complex on site, is slowly disappearing as debris is hauled away truckload by truckload.

Photo 1
Dismantlement work on multiple structures at SONGS.

Day-to-day, the path from Point A to Point B at SONGS changes regularly, and workers on site need to be aware of these changing conditions and the work that’s going on around them.

“There’s a tremendously broader set of risks that you have to be more cognizant of at a construction site than you do at an operating plant site,” said Paul Smith, who provides safety oversight at SONGS for Southern California Edison. “At an operating plant, from a physical standpoint, things are generally the same day-in and day-out, unless you have a project going on. At a construction site, conditions are changing daily, even hourly.”

That change is reflected in protective barriers that are going up and coming down, depending on the work taking place in a given area. It’s also reflected in how safety is managed. SCE provides safety oversight to the decommissioning contractor, SONGS DecommissioningSolutions, which in turn provides oversight to its sub-contractors, who also have safety personnel. All these layers to ensure each worker goes home the same as they arrived to work, every day.

What to Look For

Paul Smith is a Certified Construction Health and Safety Technician and an OSHA Authorized Trainer. Before going out in the field, Smith will attend pre-job briefs and review job-hazard analyses to get an idea of the hazards that might be present at a work site and whether they are discussed to the appropriate level of detail and understood. Gaps in knowledge or hazard awareness can increase risks to safety.

When he walks the site and approaches an area where work is happening, he first looks to see if the work area has the proper signage and barricades posted. Then he checks to see how the work is organized, that the proper supervision and team leads are present. Then it’s whether the workers have the proper personal protective equipment, or PPE. All of these elements must align to create a safe working environment.

Photo 4
Paul Smith, SCE safety oversight, watches demolition work at SONGS.

Still, things happen. While the goal is zero first-aids or injuries, it is unfortunately a potential situation at an industrial site that must be factored into daily work life.

How to Respond

A good example of an event that didn’t result in injuries but tested the response process happened in the Unit 3 containment dome.

Each containment dome has four safety injection tanks that have seismic lugs welded to each quadrant of the tank. The lugs are made of steel and weigh about 60 pounds each. Their function was to limit movement of the tank during a seismic event when the plant was operating. As the tanks were being dismantled, a lug was cut from the tank but remained suspended in place between two anchor points with a c-clamp. The lug later dislodged from this location and fell to the floor, about 18 feet. Workers were in the area but there were no injuries. One worker discovered the lug on the floor and properly reported it to his supervisor.

“The best thing to do after an event is to take the time to figure out what happened, why it happened, and what you’re going to do to prevent it from happening again,” Smith says.

Depending on the level of the event, the response could be simply coaching an individual on proper worker practices, all the way up to in-depth reviews. Additional training may be incorporated to cover the lessons learned from an event. In the case of the event with the seismic lug, similar work was paused until last week while an evaluation was conducted, and improvements were incorporated into the program. Follow-up actions included additional training for supervisors and a new checklist to help eliminate knowledge gaps.

“Communication plays a big role. You share those experiences with the workers out in the field and their supervision so they can apply that knowledge to the work going forward,” Smith said.

Smith says human performance tools, a set of guidelines that help workers stay safe, ultimately play a key role. Those tools include a Questioning Attitude, meaning if something doesn’t look right, work stops until everyone is satisfied the work can move forward safely. Another concept is Take Two, which means to take another look at the surroundings (or job site) and identify potential hazards and account for them. All workers at San Onofre are given a Safety and Human Performance Tools Pocket Guide for their use.

Photo 3
Barriers mark the proper path through a changing landscape at SONGS.

Back in the Field

Standing near the Unit 2 diesel generator building during demolition, there is a lot of activity with vehicles moving in different directions. Smith stands in a safe place and observes the action, noting how the team is putting safety first. Spotters guide trucks through barricades and escort other workers to different locations, following designated paths. Smith considered it an “elevated risk” area due to the proximity of people and equipment.

“We just watched a different work group approach this area, and all of the right things happened,” Smith said. “The lead of the group coming in made contact with the supervisor of this work area, and explained why he needed to come in. The supervisor granted him access. He communicated with people via radio on the other side of the work area. Work stopped to allow them to pass. Everything looked right.”

Smith likes to apply a Vince Lombardi quote to industrial safety, “Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work…” In this setting, it’s a comment on the obligation of everyone to put safety first, which is where it always needs to be.