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Utility to Ask Voters for 18-Month Rancho Seco Reprieve

March 11, 1988|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Sacramento Municipal Utility District directors have approved a June referendum asking voters to give the troubled Rancho Seco nuclear power plant a 18-month reprieve before deciding whether to abandon it.

The referendum plan, ratified 4-1 by the directors Wednesday night, will be the second Rancho Seco-related measure on Sacramento's June 7 ballot. Last year, activists gathered 50,000 signatures to qualify an initiative requiring the erratic plant to close on economic grounds.

Advocates of the shutdown proposal denounced the district's ballot measure, which they contend was proposed simply to dilute support for their efforts to close the plant.

"Rancho Seco has been in a test run since 1975, and it has failed, with only a 38% lifetime operating average," said Bob Mulholland, political director of the anti-nuclear group Campaign California.

Rancho Seco, which has not run since a rapid cooldown accident in December, 1985, has delivered about 40% of its designed capacity since opening in 1974. That is less than two-thirds the industry average, and the district's general manager recently said continued poor performance could bankrupt the district, commonly known as SMUD.

General Manager Richard K. Byrne and a panel of independent engineers and economists concluded that Rancho Seco is unlikely to meet the industry average for reliability within five years.

The conclusion was challenged by a second blue-ribbon panel later formed by the district. The second committee, composed of retired politicians and judges, urged the district to restart the plant.

"All the experts have concluded that what is best for Sacramento is to keep Rancho Seco closed," Mulholland said. "It is cheaper for ratepayers to close the plant permanently. The SMUD board needs to realize Sacramento residents don't want the board to continue its spending binge."

Since the plant shut down, the district has pumped more than $400 million into repairing it. Another $250 million is estimated to be needed to improve the plant and run it until its next scheduled fueling in 18 months.

District officials contend that to abandon Rancho Seco now would be to waste that investment. They contend that by operating the plant until the refueling, voters can better judge if repairs succeeded and the plant is worth keeping.

Engineers began heating up the plant a week ago and are scheduled to resume nuclear operations on March 22. Ironically, that is two days behind schedule, but not because of a problem at the plant. Federal regulators who must approve the repairs cannot meet in time for the originally scheduled restart.

In the event that the two conflicting referendum measures are approved by voters, the district's counsel, David Kaplan, said the California's Election Code states that whichever one wins the greater number of votes will take precedence.

However, Kaplan added that since the grass-roots initiative only forbids the power plant from running "without the express approval of the majority of the voters," the passage of both measures could be self-canceling. This may allow Rancho Seco to stay open.

SMUD relies on Rancho Seco for about 44% of the power needed to serve the 914,000 people living in its 890-square-mile service area in Sacramento and Placer counties.

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