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CA Senator Blasts Gov't Agency Overseeing San Onofre

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San Onofre
CA Senator Blasts Gov't Agency Overseeing San Onofre
GUEST:Rochelle Becker, Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Southern California Edison has made it official. It wants to restart San Onofre nuclear power plant on June 1st. And the preliminary ruling from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the start-up at reduced power won't pose a significant risk. Earlier this week, KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St. John spoke with the director of the alliance for nuclear responsibility about a range of issues regarding the power plant. And here's that interview. ST. JOHN: My guest Rochelle Becker has been active on nuclear issues and she cofounded the appliance for nuclear responsibility. Thanks so much for joining us. BECKER: Thanks for having me. ST. JOHN: Right now what we're hearing a lot about is the steam generators and whether in fact the company should be allowed to restart it. Give us a quick thumbnail. What do the generators cost us and how much do we pay in repairs? BECKER: Well, it's sort of in the air right now. What we have paid and what we will pay are not necessarily clear to anyone the moment. And there's numbers floating around. But you'd hate to tie yourself to something that could be inconceivable next year. So we're participating in the PUC hearings, we have legal intervention, and we're focussing on the economic impacts. We are solely focused on what the state's jurisdiction is. And that's economics and reliability. ST. JOHN: So even supposing these stem generators, the issues were resolved, and the plant came back online, the next issue that's not so far away is the fact that the license is going to run out. BECKER: That's correct. The license for San Onofre is out in 2022. They have taken themselves out of the cue for license renewal right now. And -- but if they go back into that cue, what we're saying is the state needs to look at several issues. All are cost involved. And the energy commission has recommended that the state look into all of these issues. So there's the issue of storing the high-level radioactive waste on site that was supposed to be removed long before now. 1982, are the government said it will go some place else. It hasn't gone anywhere else. There's the issue of cooling, 1 million gallons a minute goes through the plant. The EPA says you can't continue to do that. What are the alternatives? What are they going to cost? It could be in the billions of dollars. The government said you have to go out 50 miles for evacuation. United States, 12 miles for San Onofre, 18 miles for diablo canyon. What would it cost to expand out 50 miles? Infrastructure, first responders, training them, equipping them. Then there's the seismic issues. We still don't know what the seismic footprint is off California. The coastal commission denied the permit for PG&E seismic studies. They are harmful to marine life. To know what the seismic footprint is, it may cause marine life damage. There are several issues before us. And until we know the cost of those issues, it's very important that we not go forward. And the reason for that is there's no homeowner's insurance, no business insurance, and the federal reliability limit on nuclear power plants is $12.6 billion. The price tag in damages in Japan is close to $200 billion. And that was a small fishing village. And this is the coast of California. California cannot continue to rely on the federal government to make its decisions on whether we invest for the future. ST. JOHN: That's, like, about five different issues that you have mentioned beyond just the steam generators! And these issues are not up right now, but they will come up when the company, if the company decides to apply for a new license. Is the CPUC, while it's looking at the current situation considering all those issues? BECKER: Well, we have introduced these issues to the PUC, but we're concerned the PUC may not do it in the steam generator case. We want to make sure that the legislature has mandated that they do it before they consider any funding for a license renewal. The state has no jurisdiction on whether or not they can get a license renewal but whether or not we pay for that renewal is completely state jurisdiction. And the ratepayers are tired for paying for something that we don't know about. We bought a car in 1967 that was supposed to last the full life of the car. ST. JOHN: That's when the plant was built. BECKER: The steam generators fail halfway through, we're replacing them at our cost. Now they want us to replace them again or repair them again at our cost and hope the 1967 design takes us another years after 2022. I say ratepayers need to watch out, be careful, and share holders should be looking at this just as well. ST. JOHN: Is one of the reasons that the operators of San Onofre are so keen to get it up and running again is because the state has said we will not build any new nuclear power plants until the issue of waste is resolved? BECKER: That's one reason. But Edison is in a hurry because they only have to operate for a certain amount of time before -- it could take five years to replace the steam generators according to Edison's own documents. Five years from now is 2018, and the license ends in 2022. Could we better use those funds for different generation start that doesn't leave SDG&E's territory beholden to poor decision making by Edison and the federal government? ST. JOHN: Are you saying basically that the reason the company would like to get the plant back online even at only 70% power for 1 unit is so that they stand a better chance of keeping the plant in the right base? So keeping the rate payer from flowing? BECKER: That's correct. SDG&E opposed the steam generators. Had they not replaced them according to Edison, the plant's life would have terminated in 2013. It is 2013! And now we're being asked to pay again and again. They can't operate at 100% power. Edison said they'd have to operate both units at 88% power in order to be cost effect FREEMAN now they're saying 1 unit at 78% hour. Who is paying these expenses! If Edison wants to pay them, fine. We'll step back. But Edison isn't proposing that they pay them. ST. JOHN: Have you done an estimate of how much these other questions, the ones through cooling, the insurance the seismic issues, how much it might all add up to if you were to look at a relicensing? BECKER: Well, I'm not as familiar with the design phase of San Onofre, in diablo canyon, when they finished it was $5.7 billion. Over $2 billion of that was in seismic retrofits after we learned more about seismic data and analyzed it. Now we have had 20 years of operation. We know so much more about seismic issues, we have so much more information from Japan on seismic issues, but we haven't instituted those lessons learned from Japan yet, and we have no idea what that's going to cost. But I think $1 billion would be low. $5 billion wouldn't be out of the picture. Once through cooling, $1 billion would be low, $3 billion wouldn't be out of the picture. They can't tell us yet. We're saying before you file for that license, tell us what you know, tell us what the costs are going to be. ST. JOHN: Right now, what we're looking at is this restart. And the company would like to see the plant back up and running in June. Surely it would behoove the ratepayers for the CPUC to be looking ahead in the long-term. BECKER: That's right. And they do have a parallel proceeding going on, the long-term procurement process, looking at how we're going to meet the generators' need in the long-term. And San Onofre and diablo canyon are not running in that scenario. What we don't have is if you say wait a minute, I think we'll rely on nukes because that might be to expensive. You better find out what the nukes are going to cost. ST. JOHN: Tell us more about the legislation that's being introduced this week to ask the CPUC to consider some of these costs. BECKER: Senator Hannah Beth Jackson from Santa Barbara is the main author of this legislation. Santa barbia has you first% Edison ratepayers, and 50% PG&E ratepayers. She gets to pay for both nuclear plants. She's the perfect there are for this bill, very excited to carry it. Marty block of San Diego, very interested in this bill. Tony Atkins jumped in as an there are of this bill. Mayor Filner agreed to support this bill. But we want the whole city to support the bill. This isn't about Democrats, Republican, it isn't about whether you like or don't like nuclear plants. It's what you are willing to pay for technology that is from 1967 that's been propped together with pieces that we do not make in the United States! The steam generators came from Japan, the ones in diablo canyon came from Spain. How is that creating jobs in the United States? How is that creating jobs in California? And what can we do to create new jobs and infrastructure in San Diego? Take us out of the lack of control of energy supplies to building and promoting our own energy supplies for our own growth. ST. JOHN: Thank you so much for joining us. BECKER: Thank you, Alison.

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.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.