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Decommissioned nuclear reactor will be heavy load for Nevada roads

Updated May 26, 2020 - 5:19 pm

The nuclear reactor vessel from Southern California’s decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has started to make its way toward Las Vegas by rail. At more than 1.5 million pounds, it will be the largest and heaviest object ever moved on a Nevada road.

The vessel is bound for a burial ground in Utah but may sit in California for an undetermined period while experts at the Nevada Department of Transportation work to ensure that it won’t damage the state’s roads as it passes through.

When it does arrive, the 770-ton nuclear reactor vessel will be unloaded from the world’s largest rail car at Apex Industrial Park to be trucked north on eastern Nevada roads before eventually being buried at Clive, Utah, about 75 miles west of Salt Lake City.

But before that leg of the journey, Nevada needs to shore up some drainage structures along the undisclosed route to Wendover, Utah.

“We anticipate that the vessel will get shipped to Apex sometime in early June,” Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Illia said in an email Tuesday. “However, the drainage structures along the transport route through Southern Nevada need reinforcing in order to handle the load. The structures would get crushed like a soda can because the load is so heavy.”

The company hired to deliver the reactor to Utah is Emmert International, which is among the world’s biggest movers of heavy equipment. Workers plan to use heavy-duty hydraulic jacks to support the culverts when the vehicle hauling the reactor passes over, Illia said.

“It would be, by far, the biggest object ever moved on a road in the state,” he said. “Our people have been scratching their heads for months to figure out a route that could work.”

Train car weighs 2.2M pounds

The train with the railroad car hauling the reactor from the San Onofre plant south of San Clemente on the California coast departed around midnight Sunday. It arrived in Barstow about 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Holding the slightly radioactive reactor is the world’s largest train car, a 36-axle Schnabel car that weighs 2.2 million pounds by itself. It is believed the 40-year-old car is on its final run.

The reactor began generating electricity when the plant opened on Jan. 1, 1968. It was withdrawn from service in 1992. It has been stored on the plant site enclosed in a carbon steel jacket since 2002. Officials for Southern California Edison, which operated the plant for decades, say it gives off one-tenth of the radiation of a regular chest X-ray.

EnergySolutions, a company that dismantles and disposes of nuclear power plants, owns the reactor and will dispose of it at its Utah facility, where low-grade (Class A) nuclear waste is buried. EnergySolutions has dismantled at least four decommissioned reactors in recent years, company spokesman Mark Walker said.

All of the other infrastructure at the San Onofre plant will be transported through Nevada to Utah in coming years, although not necessarily along the same route as the reactor.

The companies involved in the transfer have declined to say how the reactor will get to Utah, but a message board on trainorders.com indicated the Schnabel car started its journey from the Camp Pendleton area about midnight Sunday to be taken on Burlington Northern Sante Fe tracks to Yermo, California, where it was to be switched to Union Pacific tracks for the slow run, mostly uphill, to Apex.

Presumably, the train will sit at Yermo until it can make the trip to Apex.

From train to truck at Apex

At Apex it will be switched at NDOT’s heavy transport site adjacent to Interstate 15. A massive truck and hydraulic equipment would be needed to transport it through eastern Nevada toward Ely and then to Wendover .

NDOT has not yet issued a permit for transit on state roads, but that usually occurs within 24 hours of a planned move, Walker said.

Security will be making the trip as well.

Any asphalt or road surface could buckle under the 1.5 million-plus pounds of the reactor, plus a shipping skid that adds 7 tons to the total. Making such a shipment during warmer months is a bigger issue than it would be in colder weather.

Rock outcroppings along the Union Pacific tracks near Caliente and two tunnels east of the town are too tight to allow the reactor to be shipped by rail to Salt Lake City and then west to Clive.

Part of the route will pass near Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Decades ago, the mountain was proposed to be the nation’s nuclear waste repository, but it has never opened amid a political battle over its safety.

When the San Onofre plant is eventually dismantled over eight years, all of the low-level waste from the plant will be buried in Utah, leaving only canisters of spent nuclear fuel. There is still no central repository authorized for such highly radioactive waste, so it will have to remain at the original site and be guarded 24/7.

Contact Marvin Clemons at mclemons@reviewjournal.com. Follow @Marv_in_Vegas on Twitter.

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