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San Onofre's Shutdown Generates Questions

A couple stands near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.
David McNew
A couple stands near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.
San Onofre's Shutdown Generates Questions
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.

“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 ofAES, 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.

Corrected: February 5, 2023 at 3:01 PM PST
Edison's website now specificies it would take 18 square miles of solar panels to replace the energy generated by the nuclear power plant