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San Onofre’s Shutdown Generates Questions

Above: A couple stands near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.


Aired 4/18/12

The problems at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant are generating questions about the role of nuclear power in Southern California’s energy mix.

We take it for granted when we flip the switch and the lights come on. But with the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant shut down after a radiation leak, the reliability of Southern California’s power grid is being tested.

The problems at the plant are generating questions about the role of nuclear power in Southern California’s energy mix.

A small amount of radiation leaked out of the San Onofre power plant in January, and the operator, Southern California Edison, shut down the reactor. Since then both units at San Onofre have been off line, eliminating a source of electricity that normally supplies almost 1.5 million homes.

Greg Jaczko, head of the Nuclear Regulator Commission visited the plant recently - to find out what was going on. He said the problem is with the recently installed new steam generators, made by Mitsubishi, that are unique to San Onofre.

Gregory Jaczko, Head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, speaking to the me...
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Above: Gregory Jaczko, Head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, speaking to the media after a visit to the San Onofre nuclear power plant, April 6th, 2012.

“The manufacturer of the steam generators has made steam generators for other plants in the United States, “ Jaczko said, “but they are of very different, slightly different design, so at this point, it appears to be a unique set of design and vendor that’s unique to San Onofre.”

Arnie Gunderson is a former nuclear industry executive who now works as an energy consultant. He studied the problems at San Onofre and wrote a report commissioned by the environmental group “Friends of the Earth.”

“The process of removing steam generators has become routine,” Gunderson said. “So I would agree if all they did was take the old steam generator out and put in an identical steam generator, in fact they wouldn’t be having the tube leaks, but that’s not what happened. I don’t think the NRC was aware of the magnitude of the changes that Edison was doing.

Gunderson says this steam generator is the biggest one that Mitsubishi has ever built. He says the new design removed a support pillar to make room for hundreds more tubes in the steam generators at Edison’s plant.

“It allows them to get more power out, and I think in the back of their minds they thought that they could get 2-, 3- or 4 percent more power out of the same power plant, “ Gunderson said, “which would have been very lucrative had they been able to pull that off. “

But they didn’t. A former Edison employee, Murray Jennex, estimates the company could be losing a million dollars a day as it searches for a fix.

Edison has issued a statement saying it "will proceed deliberately and conservatively, always bearing in mind that safety is our first priority."

Eric Pendergraft said he’s happy to help meet the energy shortfall. He’s the president of AES, a company that has been asked to bring back on line two recently decommissioned units at a gas powered plant in Huntingdon Beach

“We cut several holes in the sides of the boiler structures,” Pendergraft said, “and we blanked off the gas lines. We’d need about two to three weeks of work to make the repairs and then the units would be operational again.“

The agency responsible for managing power to keep the lights on this summer is the California Independent Systems Operator, or Cal ISO. Spokesman Steven Greenlee said consumers need to be ready to switch off their appliance in a hurry this summer, if San Onofre, or SONGS as Edison calls the plant, doesn’t come back on line.

“We know that without SONGS, our technical studies show that the reserve margins for San Diego and the Los Angles basin are going to be very narrow,” he said, “Even with Huntingdon Beach Units 3 and 4 returning to service, conservation is still going to be critical.”

Nobody is talking about the possibility that San Onofre won’t come back on line eventually. But Gary Headrick of the group, San Clemente Green questions if rate payers should even want that.

“Seems like an unwise investment,” Headrick said,” when we’ve just paid $700 million for the new generators that didn’t even last two years, and we’ll be expected as ratepayers to cover the cost of replacing those tubes if that’s the direction that this goes. It’s money that could be well spent on alternative energy sources that are not dangerous and are more reliable. “

A man who has already calculated how many solar roofs it would take to replace the energy generated at San Onofre is ecological designer, Jim Bell.

“At current efficiency,” Bell said, “all we’d have to do is make our buildings about 40 percent more efficient and cover about 12 percent of our roofs and parking lots, and that would eliminate the need for San Onofre. Then during the day time, we’d be pushing kilowatt hours of energy north instead of it coming south.”

And some elected officials like city councilwoman Lesa Heebner of Solana Beach are beginning to raise questions they want answered if Edison brings San Onofre back on line.

“What we’d like to do is have them listen to the lesson of Fukushima and extend the safety radius from ten miles to 50 miles,” Heebner said. “Solana Beach is within 30 miles, so we are well within a range that has been proven to be a source of danger.”

Other city councils in communities around San Onofre are paying more attention to the nuclear power plant sitting on their coastline. The Irvine city council may vote next week to ask for the plant to be decommissioned - long before 2022 when its license will come up for renewal.

Edison's website now specificies it would take 18 square miles of solar panels to replace the energy generated by the nuclear power plant

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Avatar for user 'jennymo'

jennymo | April 18, 2012 at 2:14 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

We cannot continue running SONGS! The risk of a fukushima-like event where there are 8 million people within the recommended 50 mile evacuation radius is just too great to bear in return for 5% of California's energy needs. I'm with Jim Bell in turning some of the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be required to get this 40 year old Nuclear plant up and running again into rooftop solar. I'm looking into it for my house and will only have to pay $100/month for a 20 year lease to cover all my electricity! It is the same as my current electric bill and no money down! If I put money down it would be cheaper yet. Besides which, the current grid without SONGS can supply enough electricity for this summer and beyond. They are fear mongering! They are desperate! Keep up the pressure and keep them shut down!

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Avatar for user 'JIFFY'

JIFFY | April 18, 2012 at 4:55 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

jennymo how do I go about getting the deal you are getting for your power source

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Avatar for user 'djysrv'

djysrv | April 18, 2012 at 5 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

In his second report on San Onofre, Gundersen makes some claims which on review don't appear to stand up to scrutiny. This time he says the addition of 400 tubes and the removal of a support bracket to make room for them is the cause of the excessive wear in the steam generators.

After reading it, I'm skeptical he has a point because the scale of modifications seems to be a lot less than he claims. If you have 9,300 tubes, and add 400 or 4.3% more, how does that change compromise the entire system?

Mort importantly, where do his numbers come from? Clearly, he hasn't been to the plant and there are no references to design documents either in his possession or cited in the NRC's ADAMS database. He discusses a series of "decisions" and "design changes," but none of his claims are back up by citations to technical drawings, engineering reports, or similar sources. He displays one generic drawing of a steam generator. The one shown above is not from his report, but rather from an open source on the Internet.

Nuclear engineers document decisions to make modifications to reactors. There are extensive paper trails for each step in the process. Gundersen's citations don't include any from the plant or the manufacturer or the NRC. So where do the conclusions in the report come from?

It leaves him open to the question of whether he's just speculating based on generic information generally available in nuclear industry literature. Gundersen cites an article published in Nuclear Engineering International as a source for his analysis. Readers will find it interesting, but not for the reasons cited in Gundersen's report. This is a descriptive article and not an engineering analysis of the current issues with the steam generator. It includes some of the requirements that went into the design and the performance results expected from the units.

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Avatar for user 'JRGordon'

JRGordon | April 19, 2012 at 7:16 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Jim Bell's plan only replaces MW for MW. But he fails to account for the fact that renewables are inherently variable, whereas nuclear is constant. If San Onofre were to be permanently closed, then CA would have to find a way to replace it with another constant, baseline source of power - such as nat gas or coal. Both are less green, both would be more expensive, and because of constraints in CA's transmission capacity (i.e. our power infrastructure sucks due to excessive regulation and difficulties in building more - see Sunrise Power Link), they would have to be local. These are not reasonable or feasible options. In the long-term, renewables have a strong place alongside nat gas and nuc, but in order to really lessen reliability on non-renewables while maintaining grid stability (and preventing further catastrophic blackouts), regulators will need to allow utilities to build substantially more transmission.

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