Nuclear deals with the devil?
US could learn from Japanese example in reducing nuclear energy dependency
Fourth in a series on the performance of California utilities
By John Grula 06/14/2012
S outhern California Edison (SCE), the investor-owned, for-profit utility that provides electricity to 14 million people in Southern, Central and Coastal California, can’t win for losing. Only two months after SCE put in a dismal performance during and after the severe windstorm that struck the San Gabriel Valley on the night of Nov. 30-Dec. 1, a performance so bad it has led to an investigation of SCE by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), disaster struck again. On Jan. 31, alarms warned the control room of SCE’s San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant that a radiation leak was occurring in one of the nearly 39,000 newly installed tubes that carry radioactive water in the plant’s steam generators.
San Onofre, which is located on beachfront property near San Clemente, is one of two nuclear power generating stations in California, the other being Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo. Pasadena is about 70 miles from San Onofre, but 8.5 million people in Orange and San Diego Counties live within 50 miles of the plant and would be in the greatest danger if a serious accident were to occur at San Onofre. Given its age (more than 30 years old) and location next to the ocean in earthquake country, the possibility of a disaster cannot be easily dismissed.
The discovery of the radiation leaks at San Onofre have led to an unparalleled shutdown of the plant and several months of intense investigations by SCE itself and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to determine the extent and cause of the leaks. By mid-May, about 1,300 tubes had been taken out of service because of unexpected wear. The wear is dangerous, because tube ruptures could release large amounts of radioactivity. In an extreme case, ruptures could also lead to a breakdown in the cooling system for the plant’s nuclear reactors, a recipe for the meltdown of its nuclear fuel.
Nuclear fuel meltdowns occurred in March 2011 at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, and huge amounts of radioactivity were released. On April 4 of this year, the LA Times reported that radioactive iodine from the Fukushima disaster has been detected in giant kelp growing along our coast from Laguna Beach to as far north as Santa Cruz. This clearly demonstrates the widespread distribution of the massive radioactive leak from the Fukushima plant.
The NRC has forbidden Edison from restarting San Onofre until it submits a detailed plan for preventing the excessive wear on the plant’s tubes. When this will happen and when or if San Onofre will fire up again is anybody’s guess. The problems could be very difficult and expensive to fix. Several experts have suggested there is a fundamental flaw in the design of the tubes and their support structures, according to a story in the May 17 LA Times. And SCE’s headaches may go well beyond the technical and financial. Within the last several weeks, US Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has demanded documentation from SCE and the NRC to see whether Edison fully informed the NRC about changes in the design of its new generators, including the flawed tubes and their support structures.
Losing the electricity that San Onofre generates — enough to power up to 1.4 million homes — won’t go unnoticed. SCE is already warning its customers that rolling blackouts may occur this summer during heat waves if homes and businesses do not sufficiently reduce their electricity usage. SCE customers in closest proximity to San Onofre will be most vulnerable to the occurrence of rolling blackouts, but customers in the San Gabriel Valley (such as those living or working in Altadena, South Pasadena, San Marino, Sierra Madre, Arcadia, and other communities) will also be vulnerable.
What about Pasadena Water & Power (PWP) customers? The good news is PWP does not receive any of its “imported” electricity from either San Onofre or Diablo Canyon. However, because PWP is part of the statewide electricity grid controlled by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), PWP must take part in rolling blackouts if CAISO decides they are necessary. So, PWP customers could still be adversely affected by the shutdown of San Onofre.
Perhaps you’re wondering if PWP receives any of its electricity directly from a nuclear source. The answer is yes. Under the terms of a multiyear contract, in 2011 PWP purchased 6 percent of its electricity from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Facility near Phoenix. In the aftermath of the calamity at Fukushima and the ongoing problems at San Onofre, is this an arrangement PWP might want to reconsider?
Because of the trauma caused by Fukushima, Japan switched off its last operating nuclear reactor on May 5, leaving the country entirely without nuclear power. It is not clear when or if any of Japan’s 50 functional reactors will be switched on again, and this is a nation that once relied on nuclear power for 30 percent of its electricity needs. How is Japan going to cope with this situation? To a great extent, it will do so by implementing a drastic conservation program that will include minimal use of air conditioning and the turning off of all unnecessary lights. Japan has become a living laboratory that will test the feasibility of such a program.
The US derives about 19 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources. If Japan is successful in eliminating nuclear power, perhaps we can eventually do the same.
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.