News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Barbara Boxer Blasts San Onofre Nuclear Restart Proposal

Senator Barbara Boxer has slammed a preliminary ruling by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission backing a Southern California Edison (SCE) proposal to restart the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station along the San Diego County coast. The Senator has called for a full investigation into the structural flaws that led to both remaining units of the ailing plant being shut down last year.

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SCE is hoping to reopen the beleaguered plant's Unit 2 at 70 percent power by June 1. The utility maintains that operating at that capacity will forestall further vibrations in tubes carrying radioactive steam that prompted the shutdown of Unit 3 in January 2012. Unit 2 was already offline for maintenance when the leaks were discovered. To do so, the utility will require approval from the NRC for an amendment to the plant's operating license.

"The NRC staff proposal, which could pave the way for the restart of the San Onofre nuclear power plant before the investigation of the crippled plant are completed, is dangerous and premature," Boxer said in a statement this week. "It makes absolutely no sense to even consider taking any steps to reopen San Onofre until these investigations look at every aspect of reopening the plant, given the failure of the tubes that carry radioactive water."

The NRC's preliminary ruling is just that: the agency has said it will hold off on issuing a final ruling on reopening the plant until it's had the chance to hold a public hearing. Still, the tentative approval must have felt like a slap in the face to California's senator, coming just one day after she and Massachusetts representative Ed Markey sent a letter to the agency urging the NRC to complete its investigation into San Onofre's safety before allowing a restart. "Anything short of that," said the letter, "would fall far short of the consideration the 8 million people who live within 50 miles of the San Onofre facility deserve."

In the letter, Boxer and Markey also asked for a direct response from NRC before the agency "takes any actions related to SCE's license amendment or restart plans." We can probably assume the agency offered no such response, given the preliminary ruling's appearance the very next day.

San Onofre has been a source of controversy since its closure. Senator Boxer charged in February that SCE knew about flaws in the plant's hardware that caused releases in radioactive steam before the hardware was even installed. SCE hotly denied Boxer's charges, saying "[We] would never, and did not, install steam generators that it believed would not perform safely."

Regardless of the outcome, Southern California will have to do without the majority of the generating capacity at San Onofre. Running Unit 2 at 70 percent of capacity means the 1,172-megawatt unit will provide around 820 megawatts of power at best. SCE's proposal includes a test period during which Unit 2 will be run at 70 percent of capacity for five months, with a possible extension of that reduced-capacity period for as long as one complete refueling cycle, which at 70 percent power would be in the neighborhood of two years.

Unit 3, which NRC chair Allison Macfarlane described in September 2012 as having sustained "significant damage," will likely be offline for the foreseeable future. Losing 100 percent of Unit 3's 1,178-megawatt generating capacity along with 30 percent of Unit 2 means a 1,530-megawatt shortfall in baseload power generating capacity that SCE, and its partners San Diego Gas and Electric and the City of Riverside, will have to make up somehow.

Fortunately, that's not impossible.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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