20 Years After Sacramento Voted to Shut Rancho Seco, SMUD Has Diversified Energy Sources

Jun 07 - The Sacramento Bee, Calif. -

At the dormant Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, it's possible to step
through a truck-sized hole in the reactor building's 6-foot-thick concrete
walls and stare into the chest of Sacramento's former atom-smashing machine.

After 20 years and $500 million of demolition and cleaning at the site
east of Galt, a visitor absorbs less radiation in this giant cylinder than
during a cross-country flight in a jetliner. Yet the place emits a
disquieting power -- a reminder that energy choices have far-reaching

On June 6, 1989, Sacramento became the first -- and only -- community
in the world to shutter a nuclear power plant by public vote. With no plan
or budget to decommission the facility, the work dragged on for two decades.

The decision changed Sacramento's landscape. Among other things, it
prompted Rancho Seco's owner, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, to
launch a massive energy conservation program that included planting a
half-million trees to blanket California's capital city in shade.

After the vote, SMUD not only had to diversify its energy supply, but
it was able to stabilize rates and power delivery.

Environmentalists pressed hard for Rancho Seco's closure two decades
ago. Today, some in the environmental movement are rethinking nuclear power
and the current and former president each have portrayed it as essential to
reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

But as public interest veers back toward nuclear power, Rancho Seco's
legacy offers a powerful warning to choose carefully.

"People should be proud that the citizens did this," said Ed Smeloff,
a SMUD board member at the time of the public vote, who now lives in
Richmond and works in the solar power industry.

"I think it saved the utility and it allowed people to be creative and
pursue a much more sustainable course of activities," Smeloff said. "Nuclear
is very expensive. There is a legitimate argument that it is carbon-free
technology, but it's not a pollution-free or cheap technology."

The vote and its aftermath

Critics tried to close Rancho Seco the first time in 1988, but SMUD
won out. It promised to improve Rancho Seco's performance and hold another
vote in a year.

In the second ballot measure, which was advisory only, Rancho Seco's
critics took 53 percent of the vote. SMUD began shutting down the reactor
the next day.

To satisfy Sacramento's power needs, the district signed long-term
contracts to buy replacement power from other utilities -- at less cost than
the short-term purchases required during Rancho Seco's more than 100
unplanned reactor outages. As a result, rates and power supplies became more

Within a few years, SMUD also built a wind-energy project in Solano
County and expanded its solar-panel arrays on the grounds of the nuclear
reactor itself.

SMUD aggressively promoted energy-saving programs, including
fluorescent bulbs and light-colored roofing, which were novel concepts at
the time. It also launched a complex industrial cleanup that has gone
largely unnoticed by the public.

In 2006, it built a 500-megawatt natural gas power plant on the Rancho
Seco grounds.

The ominous twin cooling towers still dominate the reactor site, a
permanent monument to the past. But cleanup work has transformed the rest of
the property into a mostly benign catacomb of concrete and rusting steel.

There were scares along the way: a minor fire in the reactor building
last year, and a worker who died of a heart attack in 2002. But given that
few utilities have traveled this far down the nuclear decommissioning road,
the process seems to have gone smoothly.

In 1991, cleanup costs were estimated at $281 million. The latest
estimate is about $500 million.

Already, SMUD has demolished and hauled away 40 million pounds of
steel, concrete, wiring and plumbing. Much of it went to a hazardous waste
disposal site in Utah.

A formal closure order, expected from the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission later this year, will free most of the property for other uses.
Two small waste storage areas will remain under NRC oversight.

Demolition posed numerous challenges, notably the need to protect
workers and the public from radiation.

The reactor vessel itself -- with its 17-inch-thick steel walls -- was
too large to fit on a rail car. It had to be cut into pieces for disposal, a
process never before attempted that required robotic cutting equipment to
avoid exposing workers to radiation.

"I can tell you, they don't build these things to take them down,"
said Einar Ronningen, Rancho Seco superintendent.

Industry was in trouble

The plant was closed during an era of enormous concern about nuclear
safety. The vote came just three years after the Soviet Union's Chernobyl
reactor exploded, causing history's worst civilian nuclear accident, and a
decade after the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor in

Rancho Seco's history also was filled with safety and reliability

The worst was a December 1985 "overcooling" event in which operators
lost control of the plant and it shut down automatically. It remained
offline for more than two years while SMUD spent more than $300 million on
safety upgrades.

"There were days it felt like it was us against the world, and it put
a lot of strain on SMUD as an organization financially," said Jim Shetler,
the utility's assistant general manager, who was part of the Rancho Seco
management team before the vote.

SMUD paid $745,000 in federal fines for various violations at Rancho
Seco through 1989.

The plant had a lifetime operating efficiency rating of just 38
percent, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, compared to the 1990
industry average of 66 percent.

"Our industry was not operating our plants at the level that they
should have been to boost public confidence," said Steve Kerekes, spokesman
for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Today, a growing desire for alternatives to fossil fuel coincides with
improved efficiency at the nation's 104 nuclear power plants -- 91 percent
last year -- largely due to improved training.

A Gallup poll in March found that 59 percent of Americans now favor
the use of nuclear power, the highest approval in the 15 years the survey
has asked that question.

Nuclear repels and attracts

Nuclear power produces abundant energy with zero carbon emissions,
factors that position it as an easy answer to the dual challenge of rising
energy demand and climate change.

"There's no quantitative way to get this right without the nuclear
industry playing a really large role," economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of
Columbia University's Earth Institute, said in a speech last week. "It's not
a happy thought, but it's unavoidable."

Rancho Seco, however, showed that relying on one technology is a risky
gambit, according to Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at
the Natural Resources Defense Council. That Sacramento could shutter its
biggest energy source overnight and continue growing on a mix of
conservation and renewable power also suggests there are other options, he

"The citizens of Sacramento made the same judgment that utilities
across the United States have been making, which was essentially to vote for
lower-cost, lower-risk power sources," Cavanagh said.

Building nuclear generation also remains far more expensive than any
other power source. A study this year by the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology found that a nuclear power plant is twice as expensive to
construct as a coal plant and four times the cost of a natural gas plant.

If coal and natural gas are taxed for their carbon emissions, however,
nuclear can be competitive.

Seventeen license applications for 26 new reactors are pending at the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It remains to be seen whether ratepayers and
investors are willing to front the costs -- both financial and

Waste concerns unresolved

Waste disposal remains a great worry. Just as coal and natural gas
have a carbon disposal problem, nuclear has a radioactive waste disposal
problem -- and both remain unsolved.

Ten acres at Rancho Seco are committed indefinitely to this problem.

Behind a razor-wire fence, earthen and concrete barriers, a 24-hour
security guard, perimeter radiation sensors and video cameras scanning every
square inch are Rancho Seco's 22 above-ground fuel storage casks.

Within each concrete vault is a stainless steel and lead cylinder
about the size of a minivan. A toxic legacy is welded tight inside the
cylinders: 493 spent fuel assemblies, each filled with thousands of deadly
radioactive pellets the size of a jelly bean.

One cylinder holds the most radioactive of the demolished reactor

Stand 100 meters away from the casks and you'll soak up less radiation
than exists at natural background levels in surrounding grasslands, says
Ronningen. But get up close and you had better not stay long.

A separate building nearby holds a category of debris that might be
called "medium-hot." It's too toxic for conventional landfills but not hot
enough to become a federal problem.

No suitable disposal facility exists for any of the material, so SMUD
spends $6 million a year to ensure that it doesn't poison the public or fall
into criminal hands, Ronningen said. Ratepayers are stuck with the bill --
unless the federal government fulfills its legal obligation to provide a
permanent storage site for the nation's spent nuclear fuel.

Congress decreed in 1987 that Nevada's Yucca Mountain would be that
place. However, terrorism fears made this single-site strategy seem foolish,
and President Barack Obama has declared that Yucca Mountain no longer will
be considered as a disposal site.

Obama believes nuclear power has a role in the nation's future. "We
must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat
climate change," he said in April.

But in California a 1976 state law forbids new nuclear energy plants
until the federal government opens a permanent waste storage facility.
Partly for this reason, nuclear is not one of the "renewable" sources that
California utilities may use to satisfy greenhouse-gas reduction mandates.

SMUD, meanwhile, continues betting on energy efficiency and a mix of
power sources. It recently launched a program to promote efficient
electronics, and plans a 200-megawatt solar thermal power plant on the
Rancho Seco grounds.

One energy alternative is not on SMUD's diverse list, however.

"I do think nuclear has a role to play (but) I'm not sure we
understand what that role should be," said Shetler, SMUD's assistant general
manager. "Do I think SMUD is going to build a nuclear plant in the future?
The answer is no."

Call The Bee's Matt Weiser, (916) 321-1264.