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San Onofre: Shutting Down A Nuclear Power Plant

June 10, 2013 1:38 p.m.

GUEST:

Rochelle Becker, executive director, Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility

Murray Jennex, SDSU School of Business Administration, expert on nuclear containment

Related Story: San Onofre: Shutting Down A Nuclear Power Plant

Transcript:

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.

FUDGE: Our top story on Midday today, the San Onofre nuclear power plant on the northern edge of San Diego County has been providing energy for 40 years but it's been closed for a year and a half due to mechanical problems and now we hear it's going to be closed for good. The cost of closing it down will be huge. Southern California Edison does have more than $2 billion in a trust fund to cover the cost. On the other hand we were not sure how long it will take and what will be done with all the spent fuel on the site even the walls of the reactor are regarded as low-level nuclear material. Joining me to talk about the decision to shut down San Onofre and where we go from here are Rochelle Becker and Murray Jennex. Rochelle joins us on the phone. She's executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility and Rochelle, thank you very much.

BECKER: Thank you for having me.

FUDGE: Murray Jennex is a San Diego State professor and expert on nuclear containment. In fact, he spent 20 years working in the nuclear industry. Murray, thanks for coming in.

JENNEX: Thank you for having me.

FUDGE: We did contact Southern California Edison and request a spokesman to hear that point of view but they did not provide us with a spokesman. So having said that, Rochelle, let me ask you what is your reaction to Edison's decision to shut down San Onofre permanently?

BECKER: It actually was not a surprise. The first ever public utilities commission hearing we received a notice from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board had decided to hold hearings on some of the issues that have been brought before them by Friends of the Earth. For us, that meant the final delay and it was really just a matter of time before Edison admitted this was not going to be cost-effective and it's in the best interest of the company, the ratepayers in the state of California to retire their plan.

FUDGE: Murray, why do you think Edison decided to shut down the plan of the contractor broker a partial restart with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

JENNEX: I think the reason they decided to shut it down is the decision process is taking too long and the longer, the harder it is to bring it back. So I think it finally reached a point where they can see an end in sight for the decision process even though technically there was no reason not to start unit two, but I think the rest of the shareholders thought it was worthwhile to make a decision.

FUDGE: Technically there was no reason not to restart it.

JENNEX: Unit two, yes.

FUDGE: Unit two, all right, Murray, decommissioning San Onofre what does that mean, decommissioning a plant?

JENNEX: For San Onofre in particular the agreement in particular was on the site when they were done they would return aside back to its natural state from whence it started so that means actually they were supposed to take down everything there, the buildings, the concrete, everything.

FUDGE: Is that unique, is that different compared to other plants have shut down?

JENNEX: We haven't had that many plants that have shut down. Once we have the buildings are still there because they are still fairly active sites.

FUDGE: 23 plants are in the process of being shut down in the US

JENNEX: Right but they are still holding fuel. We don't have any fuel repository to send fuel to.so that is the one problem I should see here with the shutdown of unit two, three

FUDGE: Decommissioning means shutting it down, dismantling it, the whole ball of wax and in the case of San Onofre you have to return it to the beach. Because that is in the lease.

JENNEX: Right

FUDGE: Knocking it down is as simple as getting out the wrecking ball and knocking things down?

MURRAY JENNEX: They will never use a wrecking ball like I said in the announcement this is considered low level radiation you have to cut it down if you start using wrecking balls and explosives you put radioactive dust in the air so it's going to be a very slow process and they're going to take their time because the longer you wait the more the radiation decays away which becomes easier to take care of.

FUDGE: That's easier I think I read on the NRC website that plants actually have six years to shut down

JENNEX: Yes

FUDGE: Is that one of the considerations that if you wait a long time it will be easier because the radiation wears off?

JENNEX: Absolutely.

FUDGE: By the way, Murray, who owns the land?

JENNEX: It’s federal land

FUDGE: It's owned by the Marine Corps?

JENNEX: Yes

TOM FUDGE: Rochelle, let me go to you, any particular concerns about the decommissioning process?

BECKER: The decommissioning process will remove most of the buildings most of what we see as seven no free however the high-level radioactive waste which is several thousand times by the way, according to the utility itself will remain on site and the most current proposal by the nuclear regulatory commission is to leave the radioactive waste on site for 300 years. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be coming to California this fall to discuss their newest proposal and our first question to that money brought the proposal to us about a year ago was could you please tell us what California's coast look like just 100 years ago, to leave radioactive waste, high-level radioactive waste on the coast of California is unthinkable and irresponsible and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission realizes this.

Sen. Boxer and Sen. Feinstein realize this and they are trying to find another solution. There is no permanent waste site anywhere in the United States to remove the waste and put it into a repository. In fact, there is no repository in the world but we would like to do is remove it from a seismically active coast, so that I get is that the federal government and, the federal government promised there would be a place to put this waste actually by now and there's no place at all to post to waste, so the waste storage, the security, continuing security at the plants because as long as there is waste your going to need security, the decommissioning process, all of these issues have cost components in the alliance will be addressing the cost components of the public utility commission and the legislator made the decision to retire the plants rather than fighting to keep them open or close them and spending the money they're rather than spending the money on whatever going to do to basically store the waste for the rest of his life which could be hundreds of thousands of years by the way for the highly radioactive waste.

FUDGE: Well Murray, what do you think? Rochelle just said it would be a terrible idea just to leave it on the coast, but if they don't leave it on the coast, where they going to put it?

JENNEX: Like she said also there is no place to put it so there is no plan. That's one of the problems we had Bill Clinton said shut down one of the only plants we had at Yucca Mountain for the people of Nevada so there's an alternative selection suggested since then.

FUDGE: You're listening to Midday Edition. I'm Tom Fudge filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh and I'm joined by Rochelle Becker and Murray Jennex. Rochelle is executive director for the Alliance of Nuclear Responsibility, she joins us by phone. Murray Jennex is a San Diego State professor and an expert on nuclear containment.

You know, when we heard from Southern California Edison that they were going to shut down the plant the NRC said it was news to us, just like it was news to all the rest of us. Rochelle, are there hearings that have to take place before it all becomes official?

BECKER: Yes there are, actually, no, it's the utility's decision whether they want to operate the plant, whether it is cost-effective. No one else has jurisdiction over that, the state of California decides whether it is economic, the feds decide whether it's safe. Nuclear Regulatory Commission notified me the afternoon that Edison made its decision stating that the hearings that they had planned to have a local community on process of whether or not the plan should restart has been canceled. Those were to be heard on I believe it was June 11, and on a few weeks they're going to be scheduling meetings to start talking about decommissioning and those will be held in Southern California so as soon as we know, I'm sure the media will know and I think it behooves all ratepayers to find out who's going to pay for the premature shutdown of San Onofre.

Is there enough money for decommissioning we don't know that is their money for all the other processes and who ends up paying in the light strongly believes the federal government has some liability here that was the federal government that the state relied upon when we approve the steam generators and $670 million in the pocket to pay for them, and so now that Southern California is really scrambling for whether or not it will have adequate energy supplies especially in the summertime we believe the federal government should step in and help us a little bit because it was partially down mistake as well.

FUDGE: Help us out in what sense?

BECKER: In what sense? Well, loan guarantees, some sort of funding that helps jumpstart a new energy economy in San Diego so we are no longer beholden to others for our energy supply. All those things should be on the table as we go forward. It should look like in new energy paradigm. That is the beauty of not continuing to fund an old energy paradigm. We can now focus on what the new energy is going to cost, deal with the cost of no longer operating nuclear plant, that was Edison's decision, now we have to deal with the cost.

FUDGE: Who pays for decommissioning I think Rochelle, that was one subject you just brought up, I heard that Edison already has $2.7 billion in a trust fund for that very thing.

BECKER: Yes, ratepayers paid the $2.7 billion. However because the plant went down early whether or not the ratepayers should have to make up for the difference of what it's going to cost to decommission and what we have already, when Edison has already collected because it was not our fault that it shut down early it was Edison's fault that it shut down early who will be paying for the decommissioning? We are just not sure yet and those of the types of issues that will be brought before the Public Utilities Commission probably in the next few months.

FUDGE: Well Murray, why don't you jump in here. how do you read the situation?

MURRAY JENNEX: I actually disagree with the Rochelle because it was a ratepayer's decision to shut down soon enough for there was no technical reason not to restart unit to unit three maybe never would have restarted maybe it would if they could've found a cost-effective solution unit two could have restarted and actually if we restarted back in October we probably would've been close to being able to operate at 100% power this summer, so from that standpoint when we let the ratepayers decide to shove something down they have a responsibility to pay for their decision.

FUDGE: Rochelle, you want to come back on that?

ROCHELLE BECKER: I'm pretty sure wasn't this an announcement that shut it down very and I will disagree on a few things but I think we agree on much more than we disagree on.

FUDGE: But Murray, you say there's no reason that one unit could not have been restarted the torture expect it would've had the same problems that the other unit did that was shot down?

JENNEX: No, I've read the technical root cause analysis report prepared by Mitsubishi on the construction of the steam generators and unit two and three steam generators are actually different now. They found there was a material problem in unit three and a construction difference that made them significantly different so that the problems in unit three are not the same as unit two?

FUDGE: Rochelle, do you agree?

R BECKER: I'm not a technical expert and I'm not to argue with Murray on this, but it was not cost-effective the bottom line is if it had been cost-effective for Edison they wouldn't have thrown in the towel.

FUDGE: Rochelle Becker is executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility Murray Jennex is a San Diego State professor who spent 20 years working in the nuclear industry. Another issue continues to be this controversy over who was responsible for the plant when it was off-line and who should pay for that. Rochelle can you explain this controversy for us?

ROCHELLE BECKER: Right, rate payers paid $70 million for the steam generators, the steam generators were put in and made subject to refund which means the Public Utilities Commission was going to decide who was at fault? Was it Mitsubishi, was it Edison, was that the federal government, was at all of them and those hearings have not been held yet. Even if you got all your money back for Mitsubishi it was the cost of transporting, them cutting holes in the reactors, patching the holes back up, sending the yield steam generator somewhere else. Had they not replaced them, that was SDG&E's proposal that we not replace the steam generators in the beginning, had we not replaced them, the estimate time for both units to shut down at San Onofre was 2012. Well, they both shut down in 2012 with the new steam generators, what did we gain by putting new steam generators in there so those are issues that will be wrestled with by Public Utilities Commission.

It's our permission to repair should not have to pay for steam generators and replacement costs. If we had to pay for the replacement costs to allow power for the other 18 months we are willing to pay for the power but we are not willing to pay for steam generators had provided no power at the center for nuclear power plants so they have to make up their mind which one we are going to pay for and which is the lesser amount and rate payers have to be very cautious about this because really it is a harmony they are talking about. This isn't Edison's money, this is our money and when Edison thought it was going to be their money, that's when they pulled the plug.

FUDGE: What about the investigation into the letters that went back and forth between Edison and Mitsubishi about the replacement steam generators? What effect will this shutdown have on that?

BECKER: I'm not really sure that was a friends of the Earth decision to bring those issues before Sen. Boxer and Sen. Boxer asked for an investigation into these letters. Whether or not she co-starred with investigating the letters I'm really not sure. But, collusion, other issues that may have been involved, I think they need to be looked at because we don't want those issues repeated anywhere else.

FUDGE: We are almost out of time here and I wanted to ask you, Murray, what you see as the lesson of San Onofre? What happened here, and what you think it means for the future of nuclear power?

JENNEX: The real lesson is actually a technical one and that the people who designed the replacement steam generators did not really do their process correctly. Actually that's what the report said is that they needed to fix our processes so I think the lesson is you have to pay better attention. You can't assume the experts know exactly what they are doing and Edison's job was to be to monitor for that and they didn't catch that. So for nuclear power this is obviously a black eye, but it will go away. Nuclear power is a transitional technology that we are going to need until we get better energy production facilities so I think there needs to be sharper watchdog activities on nuclear power.

FUDGE: And how about you, Rochelle? What do you think about the future of nuclear power?

BECKER: There is no future in California until they have a solution to the waste California has a law that you cannot build new ones it's time to phase out the old ones and concentrate on something that will benefit the state

FUDGE: With that we will have to leave it there. Thanks to Rochelle Becker executive director for the Nuclear Alliance for Responsibility thank you, Rochelle.

BECKER: Thank you ,Tom

FUDGE: And Murray Jennex is a San Diego State professor and an expert on nuclear containment he spent 20 years in the nuclear industry and Murray, thanks so much for coming in.

JENNEX: Thank you.