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

San Onofre Nuclear Plant May Close For Good

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station | Photo: Timothy Tolle/Flickr/Creative Commons License

This piece has been corrected. See end of story for details.

Southern California Edison (SCE), operator of the troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the San Diego County coast, may shut the plant down permanently if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) doesn't approve a plan to restart part of the plant this summer. The announcement, which cited rising costs as the reason for the possible shuttering of the plant, was made Tuesday -- capping a month in which criticism of the plant has mounted, including anonymous whistleblowers' troubling allegations regarding the plant's safety.

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Ted Craver, the CEO of Edison International, told analysts in a phone call on Tuesday that the company will decide by the end of the year whether mounting repair costs will prompt them to close San Onofre's two remaining reactors for good. Edison International is the parent corporation of SCE, which operates San Onofre and owns 80 percent of the plant. The other 20 percent of the plant is owned by San Diego Gas & Electric and the City of Riverside.

San Onofre's Units 2 and 3 have been offline since January 2012, when wear in steam tubes in Unit 3 caused the release of radioactive steam. Unit 2 was down for maintenance at the time and has remained so since. The leaks happened in a new steam tube generator which SCE had installed in each of the plant's two units in 2009 and 2010. SCE is proposing to restart Unit 2 in June and run it at 70 percent capacity for at least five months. The utility maintains that running below full capacity will limit the vibrations that are thought to have caused the wear in Unit 3's steam tubes.

That proposal, which is in the form of a proposed amendment to the plant's operating license, is being evaluated by the NRC. In the meantime, a report by San Diego television station KGTV's news department quotes an unnamed source who claims to have worked in San Onofre's Unit 3 as saying that the vibrations that apparently led to the January 2012 leak were very strong.

"These tubes were hitting each other -- that's dangerous," the source told KGTV's reporter J.W. August.

The source also provided August with photos showing attempted repairs of a water box with plastic sheeting, tape, and boomsticks. SCE has confirmed that the photos were taken inside Unit 3, but says the leaking water box shown did not contain radioactive water, and is nowhere near the steam tubes.

More than 17 percent of Unit 3's 19,400 steam tubes were damaged by vibration after the new steam generators were installed at San Onofre, according to an NRC report. The metal in 280 places on the steam tubes was worn more than half away. Another source, former NRC employee Joe Hopenfeld, told August that the degree of damage could extend well beyond that noted by inspectors to include serious metal fatigue. That metal fatigue could result in more leaks, said Hopenfeld, potentially posing the risk of a partial meltdown if a unit's main steam line breaks.

SCE responded by providing August with a statement that said, in part,

While Dr. Hopenfeld has an extensive resume, his... analysis is significantly flawed, reflecting his lack of specific expertise in tube vibration analysis provided by the three experts that performed SCE's analysis, which included more than 170,000 inspections.

The NRC's decision on SCE's restart proposal is expected in the next few weeks.

For the Record: The first paragraph of this piece has been edited for clarity since publication. Additionally, a previous version of this piece mistakenly read that the repairs at Unit 3 using plastic sheeting, tape, and broomsticks were performed on steam generator tubes. That statement was incorrect: the repairs in question were made to a "water box" that pipes seawater from the ocean through a set of condensers and then out to sea again. The plastic sheeting is in place to direct the seawater leak to a floor drain, according to an note from SCE's Media Relations office, which noted that the water box is nowhere near the steam generators. ReWire regrets the error.

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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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