As the shutdown at the San Onofre nuclear power plant stretches into a third month, concerns are growing about whether the plant will return online in time for summer. If it doesn’t, brownouts may be needed to conserve power.
Murray Jennex is an associate professor with San Diego State University and worked as a consultant for San Onofre for several years. He told KPBS Midday Edition that plant operators have a basic understanding of what’s causing the problem, but that figuring out the specific issue is what’s taking so much time.
“Once they understand that, they’re probably already planning those (repairs), so it doesn’t take that long to do it," he said. "They’re shut down, they’re cold, they can get a team in there, and probably within about a week they could have all the repairs made and start testing and come back up.”
Jennex said the energy crunch will only become a problem if the shutdown extends into mid summer.
“Well for us the real issue is July and August," he said. "May and June, because of June Gloom and such, isn’t that bad. So we actually do have the ability to get them back in time and make this a non issue for loss of power.”
On Friday, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission visited the troubled plant, but refused to give a timeline for when it will come back online.
Jennex said the NRC chair's visit was more to answer public concern than to assist in fixing the problem.
"I think (his visit) was more just for the public outcry," Jennex said. "This is an unusual problem, but it's not one we haven't had before in the industry."
The NRC says the twin reactors at San Onofre, located between San Diego and Los Angeles, will remain shut down while investigators try to determine why tubing in massive steam generators that carry radioactive water is eroding at an unusual rate.
Jennex said the plant's problem originates in a "brand new steam generator" from a Japanese manufacturer the plant has not used before, so "there are some questions there."
A report commissioned by the environmental group Friends of the Earth claims Southern California Edison made design changes to the steam generators without properly informing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But Jennex said he does not buy that information.
"I was the engineer that actually created the training on how to do these design change evaluations back in the mid 80s," he said. "Southern California Edison did a very thorough review from a safety analysis to show that they hadn't changed anything that would impact the safety analysis report."
Jennex said the changes were allowed under the terms of their license and the NRC's rules.
He said he thinks the tubes are eroding so quickly "because it is a new manufacturer, it's a manufacturer that hasn't provided them to the U.S. before."
"I think there's a difference between the models they used to design the steam generator and how flow is actually being put through that steam generator," he said.
Friends of the Earth has been running commercials calling for a permanent shutdown of San Onofre. Jennex said the plant should be shut down until operators understand and correct the problem, but then it should be restarted.