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

NRC To Consider Keeping San Onofre Nuke Shut For Now

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station | Photo: NRC.gov/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will be considering a request by the environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE) to keep San Diego County's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down until its licence is formally amended and current safety concerns have been addressed. The landmark nuclear power plant along the South Coast has been inoperative since January, when an accident at one of the twin reactors released a small amount of radioactive steam. The loss of power from the plant led to a number of "flex alert" days during the hottest part of the summer.

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FOE contends that the plant's license should have been amended two years ago when new steam generators were installed that were significantly different from the designs described in the plant's permit. Inspections after the January leak shows an unexpected level of wear in the generators' steam conduits. Southern California Edison (SCE), which operates the plants, has offered no proposed timetable on which they plan to restart the plant, and SCE representatives have said that they're not sure how long the plant will take to repair.

FOE is calling for a formal relicensing of the plant once the flews are repaired safely to account for the differences in steam generator design. This is a process SCE would almost certainly like to avoid, in that it involves formal hearings with public and expert testimony. Edison has already tried to recoup some of its costs for the lengthy shutdown from steam generator manufacturer Mitsubishi, which built them under what Edison described as flawed quality control procedures after they were ordered in 2004.

It may be that NRC will be receptive to FOE's requests: in a speech to nuclear industry executives, NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said Tuesday that plant operators bore ultimate responsibility for monitoring the quality and safety of the products they procure from vendors. "The licensee is ultimately responsible for the work done by their vendors and contractors to ensure they meet our quality assurance requirements," Macfarlane said.

When operating, the two units at San Onofre have a peak capacity of 2,350 megawatts. Built in the late 1970s, the facility is no stranger to technical goofs, which began in 1977 when contractors installed a 420-ton reactor vessel backwards. The plant has received multiple citations over safety procedure violations and falsified data in reports.

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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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