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We take a look at recent layoffs at San Onofre and discuss the future of the idle nuclear power plant.

August 22, 2012 12:29 p.m.


Murray Jennex, SDSU professor, who once worked at San Onofre.

Related Story: What's Next For San Onofre?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition is the announcement this week of hundreds of layoffs at San Onofre. Almost 1/3 of the work force, 700 employees. Southern California Edison stated that their troubled third reactor will not be operation for some time. The layoffs and the admission of unit 3's uncertain status raise new questions about the new clear plant's future. My guest, Murray Jennex, professor at San Diego state university. He once worked at San Onofre and has written a paper on the benchmarking process for staffing utilities. Welcome back.

JENNEX: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: We invited Edison to join us. They are not doing on-air interviews at this time. They have not determined which departments that will be affected by the layoff, in a statement, and they are preparing the required letter to the nuclear regulatory commission to repairs on unit 2. Meanwhile, they are defuelling unit 3 and does not expect to submit a letter on those repairs before the end of the year. What does the defuelling of unit No. 3 tell us?

JENNEX: Well, what it tells us is that they're trying to put that unit into a condition where they don't have to have a full set of shift personnel, cold shutdown, essentially. And in sold shutdown, you go to a very low level of staffing and you simply just watch the unit and make sure it's still there.

CAVANAUGH: Is that a unit that in active repair mode or just basically cold storage?

JENNEX: Well, cold shutdown is also where you go to for refueling. So this is a normal mode to put the reactor in when they're doing long-term maintenance.


JENNEX: It is not a permanent shutdown mode.

CAVANAUGH: What do you make of these layoffs?

JENNEX: Well, actually they make a lot of sense. The nuclear industry as an industry likes to be competitive with all the other ways of producing energy. And to do that, they have been doing a benchmarking process for about 12 years. And they're continually comparing themselves and what they have on each site to what the other types of energy use. So Edison getting done with their steam generator replacement don't need as many workers as they've had for the last several year, and now they're looking to pear it down to where they are will in line with the rest of the nuclear industry.

CAVANAUGH: The proposed number of layoffs that they submitted was 500. Now the number is 730. Is that the result of the plant being offline?

JENNEX: I believe it would be. When you put 1 unit into cold shutdown, you don't need as many maintenance and support people on the site. So yes, I believe the extra couple hundred are as a result of going into mode 6.

CAVANAUGH: So this reduction in staff is to put San Onofre in line with other nuclear facility staffing around the country?


CAVANAUGH: What is the level of staffing needed to maintain safe operations for a plant like San Onofre?

JENNEX: Well, are the San Onofre site with 2 units around 1,200-13 hundred people is what they would normally expect.

CAVANAUGH: So they were overstaffed?

JENNEX: Well, they weren't overstaffed. They were higher staff because of the steam generator replacement, and before that, they were doing the decommissioning on unit 1. So they have had extra people on-site doing extra work, and that's normal. The way to do it, when you do outages, you bring in extra people. Well, they have been in a long-term outage, and doing outage activities for many years. Now they're going to a mode where they're not going to be doing this extra, large-scale project. They're going back to a regular operation staff.

CAVANAUGH: But they are still engaged in trying to figure out what went wrong with unit No. 3 and No. 2, so the idea that they would be engaged in some sort of active repair or investigative work seems to argue for the fact that they might want to keep those extra people on staff rather than laying people off.

JENNEX: Well, not really. A lot of the extra staff was there to install the steam generator to, do the repair work, to do the decontamination and the cleanup work. What you're talking about is more of an engineering job. And I would imagine the repairs would be done by the manufacturer.

CAVANAUGH: What about the part of Edison's statement where they're announcing these layoffs, that unit No. 3 will not be operation for some time? I believe this is somewhat new language for Edison. How do you read it?

JENNEX: Well, it tells me that Edison is basically admitting that the political situation is such that they're not going to get a quick approval for a restart on unit 3. They're going to have to do some modification work, it's going to have to go through a review process, and I think they're recognizing that this process is going to take some time.

CAVANAUGH: And could it be, however, as some people have taken it, the first indication that unit 3 will not be restarted?

JENNEX: I don't believe we would sigh that at this time. Part of their analysis is going to be an economic analysis. And I don't think they have had the time to really look at that. I think what is happening, they do have the right to charge for nine months of repair work after the shutdown. That time is coming up, and they're preparing themselves to not have that extra economic burden of extra workers. They're going to take their time, go through the review process, and then as necessary, bring people on-site to do the work and get back up.

CAVANAUGH: I want to open up the line if anyone has a question. I certainly won't be addressing it, but professor
Jennex might be able to! You brought up economics, and there are two things that happened recently that might turn the tables in all of that. Last week, the consumer arm of the state public utilities commission reported that ratepayers be refunded for the part of the bill that goes toward San Onofre because there has been no power coming out of San Onofre since January. And in addition, if the reactors remain offline until November, Southern California Edison may be on the hook for the entire cost of the repair. Do you think cost therefore could be the end of at least unit 3 up at San Onofre?

JENNEX: Could be. Again, I'm a wait and see. I think what they're doing is preparing to minimize cost as much as possible to show that they're aware of the economic situation and they have their concern for the ratepayers. Part of the issue though is that the ratepayers are still going to be paying for a while because they still have the decommissioning cost. It's not going to be a title wipeout that they won't be paying for San Onofre. And keeping that in mind, realizing that really what they're trying to do is show they're taking care of that asset in the best economic way they know how, so the rate payers are not overcharged and they're not hastily getting rid of a very valuable asset.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think of this determination by the ratepayers' advocates who said not only should we stop paying that $54 million now, but ratepayers should be refunded that money in their bills?

JENNEX: Well, I think that's exactly what I expected them to say. That's their job. They're just putting Southern California Edison and the utilities commission at notice that they're going to have to justify what the charges are going to be. And I believe that actually probably everybody really thinks the manufacturer should be the one paying for this issue, and personally I would agree with that also. I don't think it should be necessarily a rate payer burden here.

CAVANAUGH: And you talked about the nine months, and that's what I referenced when I mentioned November, that Southern California Edison may be on the hook for the entire cost of repair. That has to do with -- is it called a lemon law of some kind?

JENNEX: Possibly a lemon law. I haven't really ever called it that. I think it's more of a justifiable shutdown period. And it isn't really that Edison would be on the hook for it. What they're saying is that whoever's on fault for that issue would be on hook for it. Until it gets resolved in the courts, Edison would be paying for it. But I do believe Edison would be pursuing compensation from the manufacturer.

CAVANAUGH: But not from rate payers?

JENNEX: Correct. That would be part of all the negotiations, how much each party pays.

CAVANAUGH: We've just gone through a heat wave in San Diego without San Onofre. We seem to have gotten through it without any outages. What does that say, do you think, about our need for San Onofre in the future?

JENNEX: Part of the reason we got through it was the power link transmission line got put into service a little bit early.

CAVANAUGH: The sunrise power link.

JENNEX: So it was bringing in power. It doesn't necessarily say we don't need San Onofre. What it says is we were able to find alternate sources of power. What was the cost? San Onofre has been a very low-cost provider overall. So I would say what it says is in an emergency, we get by watt it, and for long-term planning, we might need to see what they're going to do. I don't know that it says that we don't need San Onofre.

CAVANAUGH: So you think that conclusion is hasty?

JENNEX: It's very hasty. If you make the conclusion we don't need to have power generation here in Southern California to supply our needs and that we could always rely on external sources, I think that's a mistake.

CAVANAUGH: I think it's fair to say that it's been a bad year for San Onofre, it hasn't been a very good year are in the nuclear industry in the U.S. the nuclear regulatory commission is not issuing new licenses until it addresses the dilemma of long-term nuclear waste storage. Now the NRC is considering launching a new study on the health effects of living near a nuclear plant. That would include San Onofre if that health study does take off. Do you know how the industry is responding to these challenges?

JENNEX: Well, the health study is just something that is prudent. Do you that over time. It doesn't have any real significance whether or not to do nuclear power. They're just justifying that what they believe is the health risk is what it is. So I think that's normal. Not issuing new licenses is I think a way of saying, Congress, get your act together. The spent fuel issue was supposed to have been resolved in, like, 1999. And the federal government made a commitment to take all the spent fuel back at that point, and they haven't done so. The nuclear industry is saying you got to do what you said you were going to do, and until you do, we're not going to be issuing new licenses.

CAVANAUGH: And it's the problem that the federal government is having in finding and placing a facility for that spent fuel?

JENNEX: Right. It was supposed to be yucca mountain. And that got shut down or canceled pretty much by Bill Clinton. So it's been a long-term issue. And a lot of the spent fuel is building up on the existing sites. And we're going to reach a point where we got to do something.

CAVANAUGH: Do you expect Southern California Edison to attempt to get permission to restart unit 2 while unit 3 remains in limbo?

JENNEX: Oh, absolutely.


JENNEX: There's no reason they shouldn't be restarting that unit.

CAVANAUGH: What would it do to the capacity of that plant? It would be producing a third of the kinds of power, right? Am I right about that?

JENNEX: Well, it depends on what the analysis says it can operate at. If it can operate at full power, which at this point we know they can't, they'll be producing about a third of what they normally do. But that's still bringing back a third of the power supply that was at a relatively low cost. So it lowers the overall cost of our energy bundle, if you want to look at it as a bundle of supplies.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I don't want to leave this without going back to what you were talking about, the costs of decommissioning. The how complicated -- because there's a lot of pressure that we don't need San Onofre, that we should shut the facility down for a variety of reasons, that advocates would tell you. How complicated would it be to close down San Onofre?

JENNEX: Well, decommissioning not just shutting it undo. It's also dismantling and returning it back to the way it was before San Onofre. That's a ten-year process, a long-term process. A lot of low-level contaminated parts are going to have to get moved and put into storage somewhere. And it's also a very extensive proposition. That's why they have been collecting decommissioning funds since San Onofre was allowed to charge for its units.

CAVANAUGH: One last question. And it's come on my screen here, and it's a very good one. Can they run the plant with just one reactor if unit 3 never gets fixed?

JENNEX: Sure. They're independent units. They share a common auxiliary building, but they each have their own control rooms. They each have their own equipment buildings, their own reactor buildings, their own safety equipment buildings, their own turbine buildings. They are separate units.

CAVANAUGH: Always so much information from you. I want to thank you so much. I've been speaking with Murray Jennex, professor at San Diego state university who once worked as an engineer at San Onofre. Thank you so much.

JENNEX: You're welcome.