San Onofre Still Offline Three Weeks Later

Tuesday, February 21, 2012
By Maureen Cavanaugh, Patty Lane
Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Above: San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is recommending a follow-up inspection at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) after a tube leak in its steam generator forced the shutdown of Unit 3.

In a memo dated February 16th, the NRC cites the length of time the tube was in use, just one year since installed, and that due to the "the infrequency of such events in the industry, an event follow-up focused on baseline inspection is recommended to review the licensee's response to the initial indications of the tube leak."

NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks tells Midday Edition this is "fairly routine in matters like this one," adding, "we want to make sure the licensee has taken appropriate action."

"We want to independently verify their response to the event and be assured that if the plant is going to be restarted that it's done safely."

He says inspectors from Region 4 in Arlington, Texas will do the inspection within the next week or two. Dricks says they have two resident inspectors at every nuclear power plant in the U.S.

This isn't the first time there have been problems with steam generator tubes at U.S. nuclear power plants. "There have been a lot of problems with steam generators aging and thus leaking prematurely," Dricks told KPBS Midday. "The industry and NRC have a lot of experience dealing with the issue, the industry has responded very aggressively and they have procedures that all the plant operators follow when any leaks are detected." Dricks says there are a number of theories and speculation as to what's causing the wear, but no definitive answer.

It's been three weeks since the nuclear power plant that sits just north of Oceanside, California was shutdown after the leaking tube was detected. (Unit 2 was already shutdown as part of a planned outage, so currently there is no power flowing from the plant.)

Nuclear power expert, SDSU Professor Murray Jennex previously told KPBS Midday, Southern California Edison (which runs the plant), could be losing up to a million dollars a day in lost power to customers. But because power is cheaper in the Northwest this time of year, and it's not peak season, he says they may be actually saving money. ""Hydroelecrics are running more, it may be cheaper to buy replacement power than operate the nuclear power this time of year," said Jennex.

Currently, SCE is using replacement energy, but will not elaborate on how much that's costing. However, SCE spokesperson Gil Alexander says it will not be passed onto customers "in the immediate future". San Diego Gas & Electric has 20-percent ownership of SONGS and gets 20 percent, or 430 MW, of power made by the station, according to the SDG&E website.

In an update statement, Alexander tells Midday "extensive testing is underway to understand the cause of the leak, and as soon as it is understood, plant operators will implement a repair plan."

Jennex says once the problem is found and repairs and testing are completed it will be a matter of days before the plant is back online.