Upcoming San Onofre nuclear plant auction generates interest

Upcoming San Onofre nuclear plant auction generates interest
Auctioneer Rick Kigar walks near machinery that once fed water to the non-nuclear side of the old San Onofre Generating Station during a preview of items to be auctioned off over three days. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times)

Inside a building at the old San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, where storage casks were once manufactured to hold spent nuclear fuel, Dave Althaus looked adoringly at a large piece of equipment once used to cut metal.

"That's a beautiful machine," the 72-year-old Fallbrook resident said. "That's gonna be a popular item."


Althaus came to this shuttered nuclear plant Tuesday to scout out equipment he might use for his hobby of fixing locomotives and, perhaps, snag a bit of memorabilia from the energy station that once stood on the front line of California's power grid. Now the place is being decommissioned.

Starting Wednesday, the generating station will host a three-day auction of hundreds of pieces of surplus machinery and equipment that no longer have a use. The plant was shut down in January 2012 after newly replaced steam generators leaked a small amount of radioactive steam, leading to the discovery that hundreds of tubes carrying superheated water from the reactors were wearing out at an alarming rate.

On the auction list is equipment that is brand new, some that would suit only a very small number of large-scale manufacturers, and more mundane items such as hammers, screwdrivers and cabinets that someone might pick up just to have a piece of the plant — if they can afford the $500 cash deposit required for on-site bidding.

The material being sold was used for maintenance, fabrication, testing and inspection and was not associated with radiological plant operations, said Paul Coughlin of Southern California Edison's asset recovery team.

"It's all unradioactive stuff," he said.

Since Monday, nearly 200 potential buyers have toured the site to get a look at the castoffs and curiosities.

"We've seen literally everyone from mom and pop machine shops making go-karts to people who make rockets to people who see a tool box and say they want it," said Adam Mattes, a machinery expert with Sterling Machinery Exchange, which is helping with the auction.

"The San Onofre nuclear plant," Mattes said, "it's kind of a nostalgic thing. It's really cool."

If the equipment isn't sold it could be donated or sold as scrap, said Maureen Brown, a spokeswoman for Edison, the majority owner of the plant.

"We expect to get cents on the dollar for a lot of this," Brown said. "If you've ever had a garage sale, you know … it's used."

Dismantling the plant will take several years, and more than just getting rid of old manufacturing equipment, a major public concern is the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel.

To help address those concerns, Edison and the plant's co-owners late Tuesday hosted a community engagement panel made up of local community leaders, representatives of environmental and labor groups and others who are charged with advising on the decommissioning process.

Currently, some spent fuel is being held on site in 51 dry storage casks of the type that were once manufactured at the generating station. As the plant is decommissioned, more of them will be needed. But they will no longer be built at San Onofre; instead, they will be purchased elsewhere, Coughlin said.

Coughlin, who has worked at the plant for several years, looked on as Althaus, the locomotive hobbyist from Fallbrook, eyed the machinery.


"I'll give you $200 for it right now," Althaus told him.

Coughlin smiled and said he'd be content knowing the equipment will once again be productive.

"I hate to see something like this not go to use," he said.

"You've got to remember," Coughlin said later, as he looked out across the largely empty building, "there was a person or two who ran each and every one of these machines."