Group Questions San Onofre's Decommissioning Fund

Tuesday, October 20, 2015
By Alison St John

A nuclear watchdog group says utility companies are underestimating the cost of decommissioning the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

The plant’s operator, Southern California Edison, said it has collected enough money — $4.4 billion — to cover those costs, so it has stopped charging rate payers the decommissioning fee that’s been part of their bills since the 1980s.

But attorney John Geesman, of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, has filed a brief with the Public Utilities Commission challenging the “reasonableness” of the decommissioning estimate.

Geesman said Edison’s estimate assumes the federal government will find a permanent storage site for the spent nuclear fuel by 2024, which many say is unlikely. That means the spent nuclear fuel could remain stored on site at San Onofre indefinitely.

Edison’s Tom Palisano, chief nuclear officer at San Onofre, said the federal Department of Energy is responsible for the waste storage after 2024 and the company will sue the DOE for the costs of storage if no permanent off-site location is found.

But Geesman said ratepayers will be back on the hook once the $4 billion fund runs out.

“Whether you like it or not, the rate payer is obligated to pay for the cost of this waste storage,” Gesesman said. “Ultimately, you’ve got people paying legacy costs for electricity they never received.”

SDG&E, which owns 20 percent of San Onofre, is still charging San Diego ratepayers customers a decommissioning fee in their monthly bills. But spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said the utility plans to stop in 2016, once the CPUC approves its decision.

She said SDG&E and Edison have separate decommissioning trust funds, and independently determine whether the money in their funds is adequate.

The amount collected depends on how much electricity a customer uses. For a customer using an average of 500 KWH, that monthly charge is 21 cents, Donovan said.

The $4 billion decommissioning trust fund is separate from the controversial $4.7 billion settlement reached in 2014 by the utility companies after San Onofre was shut down, following a radiation leak in 2012. Under that settlement, ratepayers would foot $3.3 billion of the cost of the premature shutdown, while investors pick up $1.4 billion. Ratepayer advocate groups that signed on to that agreement are now calling for it to be revisited.