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The dubious future of the San Onofre nuclear plant

May 06, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which has been shut down since early 2012.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which has been shut down since… (Los Angeles Times )

Southern California Edison officials are saying that if they can’t get permission to reopen one of the shuttered reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, they will consider permanently closing the plant this year, according to a report last week from the Associated Press.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is mulling the request to reopen Unit 2 at partial power this summer for a five-month test period, to see if the plant can operate safely at that level after extraordinary wear was found in tubes related to the plant’s new steam generators. Costs have reached about $550 million, with both Units 2 and 3 closed since early 2012, and the Public Utilities Commission is still pondering whether Edison’s shareholders or customers should pick up the tab.

Though anti-nuclear activists and some lawmakers have been protesting any possible reopening, this isn't a decision that should be left to sentiment or politics. This is an engineering decision that should be based on the science.

But this much seems clear: When it was buying the new generators, Edison was adamant in its claim that the design for the new machinery wasn’t different enough from the old generators to warrant a detailed NRC review. That now appears not to have been the case. The NRC should not be bowing to any pressure either way, and that includes not speeding up any decisions on allowing one reactor to operate in order to spare Edison a difficult and potentially costly financial decision. All future considerations should reflect the utmost in caution and public transparency, however much time that takes.

And even more obvious: Ratepayers should not be on the hook for the full $675 million the generators cost, and they certainly shouldn’t pay any of the millions of dollars in costs racked up by their failures. If having to shoulder the financial responsibility for a messed-up design means a difficult time for the utility or the closure of the plant, so be it.

Under the very best of circumstances, San Onofre should be viewed as a short-timer. Investment in new generators is definitely not worth the cost. With all of its equipment problems, plus the lessons learned from Japan about how nuclear plants don’t belong in unpredictable earthquake territory, San Onofre should at most be allowed to limp along at whatever speed is found to be utterly safe — which should be verified by continual third-party inspections — until its license expires in 2022.

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