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Edison may try to avoid public hearings before San Onofre restart

It has requested a meeting with the NRC for a possible license amendment, which could speed up the process. Critics want full hearings before a restart.

March 23, 2013|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • The San Onofre nuclear power plant has been out of service for more than a year.
The San Onofre nuclear power plant has been out of service for more than a… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

The operator of the troubled San Onofre nuclear plant might request a license amendment before restarting the plant through an expedited process that would not require public hearings before a restart.

Southern California Edison said Friday that it has requested a meeting with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to discuss the possible license amendment. The NRC has not yet responded.

Also Friday, a special NRC panel heard arguments from Edison and Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that has pushed for the commission to require a license amendment with a full trial-like public hearing process before deciding whether to allow the plant to fire up again.

The panel did not rule on the issue Friday, and that proceeding is separate from the one that would take place if Edison submits a license amendment request.

The plant has been out of service for more than a year because of unusual wear on tubes in its recently replaced steam generators. Edison has proposed to restart one of the plant's two reactor units — where the damage was less severe — and run it at 70% power in hopes that operating at reduced power would eliminate the conditions that led to the wear.

Friends of the Earth has argued that Edison should have applied for a license amendment for certain design changes when it replaced the steam generators and that it should be required to get an amendment before the NRC decides on the restart proposal.

Some NRC staff had also suggested that Edison would need a license amendment to run at less than its full licensed power. In response, Edison argued that 70% power would, in essence, be full power, but also submitted an assessment showing that the plant could operate at full power for 11 months without danger of a tube rupture.

Edison officials said Friday that because the NRC review of that assessment might be lengthy, the company is considering requesting a license amendment in hopes of hastening the process and getting the plant online before summer, when energy demand peaks in California.

State energy officials are putting contingency plans in place for the summer, but the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the state energy grid, has said there are some concerns about reliability in San Diego and southern Orange County if San Onofre stays out of service.

Edison would ask the NRC to find that there are no significant safety issues with the license amendment, meaning that the commission could issue the amendment before holding public hearings on it.

Friends of the Earth attorney Richard Ayres argued Friday that the public should have a hearing before a decision is made.

"This case is an important test" of NRC Chair Allison McFarlane's policy of transparency in regulating nuclear power, he said.

The environmental group also declared that Edison was conceding the need for a license amendment. Company officials disputed that, saying that they were simply looking for a way to expedite the NRC staff's review.

The NRC could issue a license amendment within two months of receiving a request, but Edison acknowledged that the process could take much longer.

Even if a license amendment is granted, the NRC would have to decide separately on the question of whether it is safe to restart the plant.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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