SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — As California debates on the closure of its final operating nuclear power plant it brings back thoughts to Sacramento’s decommissioned nuclear power plant, Rancho Seco.
A little under 40 miles from Downtown Sacramento stand two 425 feet tall cooling towers that display the region’s attempt at bringing the Central Valley into the nuclear age.
In 1974, the 913 megawatt Rancho Seco Nuclear Generation Station in Herald went online under the operations of the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD).
However, the power supplier’s dreams of a nuclear future would meet mounting costs, reliability issues and worldwide nuclear issues that would create public unease.
In a June 2019 Sacramento Bee article, former California State Treasurer Phil Angelides recounted the days of the power station and its demise.
“The plant was an enormous liability for Sacramento,” Angelides told the Sacramento Bee. “It was first generation plant technology, it just didn’t function.”
The fact of the station being a first-generation plant would cause great concern as a very similar nuclear station on Three Mile Island near Harrisburg Pennsylvania would have a partial meltdown in 1979.
On Dec. 6 1985, operators of Rancho Seco lost control during an “overcooling” that caused an automatic shut-down, keeping the plant closed for more than a year, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
This was not the first this had occurred, according to the NRC, as on Jan. 5, 1979 a personnel error caused an issue with the instrumentation and control systems power supplies.
The 1986 devastation of Chernobyl in Ukraine increased Sacramento’s mistrust of nuclear power as they could see the same happening at Rancho Seco.
Protests had already occurred at the gates of the power plant following the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, but things escalated as the cost of the station’s operations kept growing.
According to a June 1988 article from the Los Angeles Times the plant had closed for “twice as much time as similar plants and it (had) delivered but 38% of the power it was designed to generate.”
In 1988 a citizen-initiated measure was placed on the ballot to shut down Rancho Seco.
Measure B gave voters the option shut down the nuclear plant for good with no chance of having it operate as a nuclear power plant again without voter approval.
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The measure failed and SMUD asked for one more year to get things at the plant moving in the right direction, but then in 1989 Measure K went to the ballot.
According to a UC Davis article Measure K asked voters “Shall the proposed SMUD ordinance providing that SMUD may continue to operate Rancho Seco be adopted?”
With 53% of voters saying “no” to the measure Rancho Seco went offline on June 7, 1989 and Sacramento become the first constituency in the world to vote for the closure of a nuclear power plant.
With the plant closed now SMUD had to figure out how to decommission the plant and what to do with the 493 spent nuclear fuel rods in their reactor.
While most of the contaminated material was taken to a facility in Utah, the fuel rods remained at the facility in SMUD’s aboveground Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation.
Since 1998 SMUD has been in legal battles with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) about the disposal of the fuel rods.
According to Federal Claims court records from 2005, SMUD believes that the DOE broke the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act and Standard Contract that requires the removal of spent nuclear fuel by the federal government.
On May 25, 1994, SMUD was informed by the DOE that they would not be able to remove the fuel rods until 2021 at the earliest, according to court records. The DOE claimed that the lack of a federal disposal location kept them from collecting the spent fuel rods.
On August 14, 2014, court records show that SMUD was awarded $53,139,863 for costs incurred at the Rancho Seco plant between Jan. 1, 1992 and Dec. 31, 2003.
In 2020, SMUD filed a license renewal with the NRC to keep the fuel rods at Rancho Seco for an additional 40 years.
Today the Rancho Seco Recreational Park along with a multi-acre solar farm sit in the shadows of the two massive cooling towers of the former nuclear plant.