San Onofre's two nuclear-power units have been down for months and will stay that way for months more. Late last week, Southern California Edison officials acknowledged that after early hopes that the reactors would be running safely in time for the summer energy load, it isn't going to happen. They'll have a plan by midsummer for reopening Unit 2, but then the plan will have to go through the lengthy regulatory process. And no one seems even remotely confident of when Unit 3 might return, and if it does, at what level of power? (Unit 1 was closed years ago.)
The problem stems from the huge bundles of tubes that are an integral part of the new steam generators for which ratepayers recently shelled out $671 million. In February, it was discovered that many of the tubes -- especially in Unit 3 -- were wearing thin despite their newness, a result of vibration that caused the closely bundled tubes to rub against each other. These tubes don't get replaced like a hose in your car; they have to be plugged when there's a problem, and if enough of them are plugged, the reactor cannot run at full power.
Two retired natural-gas generators in Huntington Beach have been brought back to life to help see the region through the hot days of summer. That, plus a conservation program, should prevent brownouts, utility officials say -- unless there's a bad heat wave. But the gas plants are a stopgap measure; they can't stay online for more than a few months. Some environmentalists are saying that San Onofre should simply remain closed, though it produces 19% of Edison's power. Running at reduced power wouldn't eliminate the vibration, Friends of the Earth contends, and the risk isn't worth it.