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Is San Onofre Cost Effective In The Long Term?

San Onofre from the State Park, April 2013

Bill Hannaman is a nuclear engineer and consultant. He’s assessed risk at nuclear plants around the country, and he believes it's worth spending hundreds of millions of dollars if that's what it takes to get the troubled San Onofre plant safely back on line.

“I think the answer to that is ‘yes,’” he said, “If you look at the history, the plant has done very well. It has operated for 30 years with no real problems, like the ones we have now, and it’s been a real friend to people in Southern California because it’s kept our rates low, believe it or not.”

It would be cost effective, Hannaman said, because most of the capital equipment costs are already paid off.

Bill Hannaman, nuclear engineer, Scripps Ranch, April 2013

“The addition of new steam generators, even if we have to replace the ones in Unit Three, wouldn’t be that bad,” he said, “because they’re only $700 million, let’s say. If you have a million or more customers that are paying in, that amount can get paid off rather quickly.”

In other words, the plant would generate enough power to cover those costs. It generates billions of dollars worth of power.

But while we have been focused on the failed steam generators at San Onofre, there are other problems that will cost money, perhaps a lot of money, in the not so distant future.

“Do we want to give them another billion dollars and another five years, when other costs are right there on the horizon?” asked Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.

Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility at San Onofre State Park, April 2013

On a recent visit to the San Onofre State Park next to the nuclear plant, Becker said California ratepayers need to know what other costs lie ahead, for example, costs triggered by what happened at Fukushima.

“As you drive into this campground,” she said, “you notice a sign that says, ‘Tsunami Zone.’”

She pointed to the emergency siren next to the parking lot, and the massive transmission lines stretching up across the freeway and the hills beyond.

“Are they safe during a seismic event?” she asked.

Studies of earthquake fault lines off the coast are currently on hold because the California Coastal Commission is concerned about the potential damage to sea life. But those studies could ultimately reveal major retrofits are needed at San Onofre.

Becker said another cost is the unresolved issue of where to store the nuclear waste. Behind her and beyond tall eroding cliffs sit San Onofre’s twin domes.

“Right now, thousands of tons of radioactive waste sit right behind me on our coast,“ Becker said, “Right now, the NRC has no plans to get it off our coast and we’ve been promised since 1982 that it would be removed to somewhere else some day.”

A third unresolved issue, Becker listed is what it could cost to redesign the plant’s cooling system, perhaps with cooling towers, to meet new California regulations to protect marine life.

“A million gallons a minute goes through this plant,“ she said, “sucking in sea life, sucking in larvae, putting out warmer water. Now the alternatives to “once-through cooling” are really very expensive, technically very challenging and could reshape this coastline again. They’re going to ask ratepayers to pay. I want to know what it’s going to cost before they ask me to pay.“

Becker compares the plant to an old car and questions when it become too expensive to maintain.

"Maybe pouring a lot of money into a new plant would have made sense," she said, "new emergency planning, new steam generators, new seismic studies, new liability limits — but doing that for a plant that was designed in the 1960s? How many of us is going to drive such a car, fix everything up and say we’re going to drive it another 20 years? “

But Bill Hanamman doesn’t buy the old car analogy.

“I don’t see that as a real drawback.“ he said, “I’ve seen some classic cars that are just beautifully restored and they’re really great to see on the road.”

And he isn’t worried about an accident in the future, even though he lives in Scripps Ranch, within a 50-mile radius of San Onofre.

“I’m totally comfortable with it,” he said, “For me, the tradeoff in having a solid, good electric system is far better than worrying about a small risk that we haven’t ever encountered before.“

Hannaman said technical studies show you’re better off staying in your home and shutting all the doors and windows if you are beyond the 10-mile limit, rather than trying to evacuate if there is a radioactive accident at the plant. He said under the Price Anderson Act, the government would cover insurance costs over a certain limit if there were damage.

But Becker said beefed up evacuation planning may be required after Fukushima has been fully reviewed, and that could generate more costs. Plus, she believes taxpayers’ liability is underestimated.

“The federal liability limit is $12.6 billion,” she said. “When you look at what happened at Fukushima, the damages that they’re paying are over $150 billion. That was a small fishing village. This is the coast of California. Liability limits are woefully inadequate.”

Becker said the utilities are not ignoring all these issues. But the ratepayer needs to know how these problems will be resolved and what that would cost. Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility is sponsoring new state legislation that would require regulators to consider all these costs before approving a license renewal when San Onofre’s current license runs out in 2022.

The operator, Southern California Edison, has not said if it will apply for a license renewal. The company is currently applying for a temporary license amendment to restart one reactor at 70 percent power for two years. Becker thinks ratepayers should have the long-term picture before investing any more in the plant.

“We need to consider the arguments for nuclear power, the arguments against nuclear power," she said. “But those are a side issue. What we really want to know is what is nuclear power going to cost the State of California, the ratepayers of California? Tell us how much its going to cost and we’ll decide whether you continue to operate or we decide another energy path.”

San Onofre has been a source of safe, reliable electricity for decades, but the question of whether it would be safe and cost effective in the future is growing increasingly complex.

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