Rancho Seco Nuclear Plant
On October 22, 1998, the 1998-1999 Sacramento Grand Jury toured the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) nuclear facility, Rancho Seco ("dry ranch" in Spanish).
The Grand Jury was given a briefing on the history of the installation, followed by a guided tour. The Grand Jury was given a detailed explanation of the ongoing and planned disposal and conversion of the facility's principal components, including its containment building, cooling towers, turbines, auxiliary power plants, and office buildings. The planned procedures for removal, containment and ultimate disposal of the plant's spent nuclear fuel rods were also presented.
The Grand Jury was informed that SMUD was authorized, by its ratepayers/owners, pursuant to a 1974 ballot measure, to construct Rancho Seco Nuclear Plan (the plant) on 2,100 acres in the southeastern part of Sacramento County. The site was chosen for its seismic (earthquake) stability, altitude above the flood plain, and availability of land and water. (SMUD's board of directors later voted to construct a second plant, which was never begun.) Subsequently, an advisory proposition directing shutdown and decommissioning of the nuclear plant was placed on the countywide ballot by the SMUD Board and passed by voters in 1989.
According to SMUD officials, from a peak employment level of 700 employees, augmented by 500 operational contract employees, the plant staff has decreased during the decommissioning process to the current staffing level of 150 employees. The contract for technical support employees was canceled in 1989.
The Grand Jury learned that the sudden closure decision surprised not only SMUD, but caught the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) without any policies or procedures developed for decommissioning an active nuclear plant.
SMUD found itself "pioneering" in developing methodologies, engineering and economics of the shutdown, and the subsequent decommissioning and dismantling, of a functioning nuclear plant. The staff advised the Grand Jury that SMUD was required to maintain all aspects of the plant, including its high level of security and a full staff, for three years following the shutdown because of the NRC's lack of developed policies and procedures for the situation. The NRC continues to require fees, licensing and restrictions on decommissioning as a matter of policy until all nuclear fuel has been removed; however, the NRC has not provided any off-site radioactive fuel storage. SMUD has succeeded in developing a cost-effective plan to proceed with decommissioning by creating on-site fuel storage until the NRC meets its obligations.
The Grand Jury was privileged to have a detailed demonstration of the NUHOMSTM dual purpose cask and the NUHOMSTM dry shielded container. This assembly is filled with helium to prevent deterioration and is designed to both store the spent fuel on-site and will ultimately be put on a transport trailer specially designed to carry the assembly to the final storage site. (NOTE: NUHOMS is the trademark name for the Nuclear Horizontal Module System.)
When the plant is fully decommissioned, SMUD is planning to redevelop the site. Rancho Seco personnel related that Sacramento County developed a park site with a man-made 160-acre lake, lakeside recreational vehicle/tent camping amenities, picnicking facilities, a small zoo operated by Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS), and fishing access, and transferred the operation and maintenance responsibilities of the recreational park to SMUD in 1994. SMUD will receive $200,000 per year from the State of California for continued operation and maintenance until 2030. A proposed 18-hole golf course, including provisions for environmental protection of vernal pools and riparian habitat, has been studied for development on the Rancho Seco site outside the park.
The Grand Jury was told that SMUD continues to maintain a testing program for non-detectable levels of radiation within a radius of ten miles of the plant. This testing and monitoring is being done to allay the fears of nearby farmers and Rancho Seco neighbors. This level of radiation detection is also being applied to every item being dismantled or scrapped during decommissioning. Failure to meet this criteria requires that the material be disposed of in a radioactive material depository. SMUD has developed an intensive cleaning regimen because of the economic savings realized by avoiding radioactive materiel disposal costs as opposed to normal landfill or reuse of clean materials.
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