Federal regulators investigating the possible restart of one of the reactors at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station issued a preliminary ruling Wednesdsay, representing a victory for the company that runs the nuclear power plant.
In its preliminary ruling, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) found that running the plant at reduced power would not pose a significant safety risk.
California Democrat Senator Barbara Boxer blasted the NRC's finding, calling it "dangerous and premature." Earlier this week, she called on the NRC to complete a comprehensive investigation before approving a restart. The NRC has promised to hold a public meeting in Southern California before making any final decisions.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has been offline since January 2012 after a small radioactive leak was detected in tubes that carry radioactive water through two newly-installed steam generators. Southern California Edison, the majority owner of the plant, has argued for months to run Unit 2 at reduced power. The utility wants to run the unit at 70 percent power for five months then shut it down for inspection of the steam generator pressure tubes.
Restarting San Onofre’s faulty Unit 2 reactor at lower power is a short-term strategy. The operator, Southern California Edison, has officially applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a temporary license amendment that would allow it to run the reactor at 70 percent power for two years, shutting it down every few months to check on the tubes.
Premature tube wear caused a small radioactive leak last year in Unit 3, which is now out of service. Although the steam generators at both units were replaced around the same time, the company argues that Unit 2 is safer to restart.
The steam generators cost $700 million and may need to be replaced. If the steam generator tube problem is resolved, the long-term question is whether San Onofre could qualify for a full license renewal. Its current license runs out in 2022.
The operator has not yet announced whether it will apply for a license renewal. A new bill would require the operator to detail all costs associated with continuing to run the plant. Those costs could be substantial, for a plant that was originally designed in the 1960s.
Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, which is sponsoring the bill, said the costs could well include upgrades to withstand earthquake threats, though right now seismic studies to test the risks are on hold.
The plant would also need to redesign its cooling system since its current “once through cooling” will not meet state standards. Evacuation plans may need to be rethought in view of experience from Fukushima. Insurance limits are a worry for a plant that sits close to a community of more than 8 million people. And what to do with the nuclear waste has yet to be resolved.
“We’ve taken all these costs and put them in different proceedings and different agencies,” Beck said. “And nobody know what the true costs of continuing to operate are. This bill puts them all on the same table, hands them to the CPUC and says, ‘OK, you guys decide what’s best for the ratepayers. “
State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D- Santa Barbara) introduced the bill.
“Utilities often tout nuclear energy as an inexpensive source of power,” she said. “But there have been unforeseen maintenance costs associated with the San Onofre plant and ratepayers have been left with the bill. And as we saw with Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the costs of nuclear disaster are astronomical and catastrophic. We need some way to judge whether going forward with a nuclear power plant is the best and most cost-effective route to supplying our energy needs.”
San Diego Senator Marty Block is a co-sponsor of the bill.
California's Public Utilities Commission is currently considering the limited question of whether Edison's charges for the steam generators are reasonable, considering they have not generated any power for more than a year.
The Commission is not yet considering whether ratepayers should pay for the problem to be fixed. Running one reactor at 70 percent power is not a permanent solution.
If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decides it is safe to restart the plant at 70 percent power, it will help Southern California Edison's case that ratepayers should continue to cover costs.