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It's time to pull the plug on San Onofre

October 04, 2012|By Paul Whitefield
  • The San Onofre nuclear power plant.
The San Onofre nuclear power plant. (Los Angeles Times )

So, Southern California Edison wants to restart one of San Onofre's nuclear reactors.

OK, sure. What could go wrong? (And isn't that the $64-million question that always hangs over nuclear power?)

It's not that San Onofre has been trouble-free. Far from it. But it has produced electricity reliably since 1968 -- and Lord knows we need the juice here in Southern California.  

And now Edison says that it understands the problems that have caused the plant to be offline for eight months. 

Edison wrote that the unusual wear was a result of "fluid elastic instability" -- high-velocity steam flow and low moisture in certain areas that caused the tubes to vibrate excessively and rub against each other.

And it has a solution:

In a plan submitted Thursday, Edison proposed to restart Unit 2 and run it at 70% of full power for five months before taking it offline for inspections to make sure the tube wear is not continuing.

Not surprisingly, though, folks living close to the plant aren’t so sure.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth surveyed people in Edison's service area and released results earlier this week showing that a majority of respondents thought the plant should stay offline. 

The group released a statement calling Edison's plans to restart Unit 2 "a reckless gamble that flies in the face of the utility’s claim that it puts safety ahead of profits."

And what is the average Joe supposed to make of all this? After all, don’t we have to trust the people in charge of the company, and the regulators in charge of the industry. 

Yes, but ... The problem is that in this day and age, trust in corporate America and in government regulatory agencies is in short supply.

SCE President Ron Litzinger said in a statement: "Safety is our top priority, and after conducting more than 170,000 inspections to understand and prevent the problem, and confirming the corrective actions we have taken to solve the problem with the top experts from around the world, we have concluded that Unit 2 at San Onofre can be operated safely and within industry norms. When implemented, this plan will get San Onofre Unit 2 back to providing reliable and clean energy to Southern Californians."

But does he mean that and believe it, or is that corporate spin?

My guess is, if you polled the general public, most would vote “spin.”

But that doesn’t mean they're right. It could be NIMBYism, or it could be that we're letting conspiracy theorists, Hollywood (remember "The China Syndrome"?) and interest groups lead us astray.

Now, I’m obviously not a nuclear expert. I'm just Joe Citizen who lives relatively close to a nuclear power plant. But here's what I do know about nuclear power, something I learned from Chernobyl and again from Fukushima: When something does go wrong, it’s bad. Really bad.

So I'll take Edison at its word. Heck, if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees, I'll take it at its word too. I won't impugn their motives or methods.

But it won't change my mind. My bottom line? San Onofre reliably produced power for half a century. Why don't we just say that's enough, count our blessings and move on?  Maybe it's a safe place, or maybe we just got lucky.

Either way, it's time to pull the plug.

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