Offering some hope for this summer's power drain, a nuclear generator at San Onofre idled by a fire in February has been restarted and is expected to be running at full capacity by Sunday.
The generator, one of two at the facility, provides enough electricity for approximately 1.1 million households. The San Onofre unit was the largest of several generators across the state that were shut down early this year, deepening the state's energy problems.
This weekend will mark the first time since December that San Onofre will have the ability to run both its generators full-throttle, providing enough power for 2.2 million households. The generator had been shut down for routine refueling Jan. 2 and was restarted only hours before the Feb. 3 fire.
"This is 3% or 4% of California's power supply," said Breck Henderson, spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "It's a bunch of power . . . and it really will help reduce the probability of blackouts with summer coming."
After some generator parts that had been shipped from as far away as Richmond, Va., and England were installed, the disabled reactor was restarted Thursday and was running smoothly at about 41% capacity Friday, officials said. The reactor is capable of producing 1,120 megawatts of electricity.
With the high demand months of summer and the consequent threat of blackouts looming, officials said, as many as 400 people at a time worked around the clock on the generator for 117 days. Special "parts teams" traveled the world, ushering parts through customs and otherwise trying to speed up the process. All told, the cost to repair the reactor could reach $50 million, although officials don't know the exact figure.
Experts said the difference between the need for state power authorities to order a blackout and avoiding one often could be a matter of 50 to 100 megawatts of available electricity. "This much power will go a long way toward reducing the possibility of losing power," said Ray Golden, a Southern California Edison spokesman.
The trouble at the San Onofre plant, which hugs the Pacific south of San Clemente, began when a generator was turned on after refueling. A circuit breaker failed, triggering a small fire that shut down the lubrication system for the million-pound turbine. This froze the giant rotor, much like an automobile engine that had been run without oil.
Although the fire was extinguished quickly, it destroyed smaller mechanisms that led to bigger problems because the rotor is finely tuned and aligned with laser beams, running with extraordinary precision.