Good News, Bad News for SoCal Edison on Nuclear Plant

San Onofre | Photo: exquisitur/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Southern California Edison (SCE) execs are likely breathing a sigh of relief this week as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has opted to issue safety citations rather than fines over flawed steam generators in the utility's now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

The NRC is issuing a "Notice of Nonconformance" to Japanese vendor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) for computer modeling design problems in the replacement steam generators it sold to SCE. The utility is also being cited for failing to perform sufficient quality control oversight as MHI designed the steam generators. But no fines are being levied on either firm, a decision that has some environmental activists shaking their heads.

Leaks in the steam generators' tubes forced a shutdown of the San Diego County nuke's Unit 3 in January, 2012, during a period in which Unit 2 was already shut down for maintenance. The utility decided to keep the power plant closed permanently this summer.

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In a press statement released Monday, SCE's Chief Nuclear Officer Pete Dietrich said that it's not unusual for the NRC to cite a plant operator for failure to oversee suppliers' equipment.

"SCE is responsible for the safe operation of San Onofre and will continue to make safety our top priority as the plant is decommissioned," Dietrich said. "MHI is accountable for its failure to provide properly functioning steam generators."

Anti-nuclear actiivists, who've long criticised the plant and SCE, weren't so sanguine at the news that no fines are being levied. "It's proof that the NRC is a lap dog and not a watchdog," Friends of the Earth's Damon Moglen told the Los Angeles Times.

SCE is casting the NRC's decision as at least partial vindication in its dispute with MHI over the steam generators. In its press statement, the utility said the decision underscored its contention that MHI bears the responsibility for the faulty equipment:

[T]he NRC reports indicate that MHI's use of its computer codes in the design of the steam generators inaccurately predicted thermal hydraulic conditions in the steam generators, leading to tube vibration and wear, and a steam generator tube leak. The NRC also found that MHI embedded the same computer modeling error in the design of steam generators at four other nuclear plants, although none developed the fluid elastic instability that caused San Onofre to shut down.

Though the utility seems to have gotten support from the NRC in the San Onofre issue it can't say the same this week about the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which has temporarily blocked attempts by SCE and San Onofre co-owner san Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) to charge ratepayers for the costs of power the utilities have had to buy to make up for San Onofre being shut down.

The proposed decision, which now must be approved by the CPUC's commissioners, will keep the utilities from passing on "procurement costs" for replacement power until a final decision is made on how much ratepayers will pay of about $3 billion in costs stemming from San Onofre's outage and decommissioning.

Those procurement costs so far total about $321 million for SCE and $69.4 million for SDG&E.

"I want to assure customers that they will not pay twice for the costs associated with the outage of San Onofre while the CPUC investigation comes to its conclusion," said CPUC Commissioner Mike Florio.

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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