Nuclear power: RIP?
Solar and other renewable energy sources have never looked better since the closure of the leaking San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant
By John Grula 07/02/2013
(Part of an ongoing series on the performance of California utilities)
Well, it’s over — at least the easy part.
On June 7, Southern California Edison (SCE) announced it will permanently close its San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant which is located about 70 miles from Pasadena, along the coast of Northern San Diego County. The plant had been closed for nearly 17 months after a radioactive leak was detected that was caused by excessive wear in hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water inside the plant’s newly installed steam generators.
In the aftermath of the three meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011, SCE was not taking any chances and very few of the 8.7 million citizens who live within 50 miles of San Onofre were inclined to argue with SCE about its closure of the facility.
In making its decision to permanently close San Onofre, SCE cited the mounting repair and replacement power costs (more than $500 million and counting) and the uncertainty regarding if and when federal regulators would approve repair plans and, following approval, OK the repairs and give the green light for restarting the plant. Faced with these realities, SCE decided to throw-in the towel and cut its losses.
There is little doubt that SCE is primarily responsible for the San Onofre fiasco. Over the last decade it paid $760 million to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to build four new steam generators which began operating at San Onofre in 2010 and 2011. SCE was supposed to manage the project and provide oversight, but serious flaws in the design of the generators caused the generator tubes to vibrate and knock against each other and their support structures. This resulted in tube damage, according to an article appearing in the Los Angeles Times, and the subsequent release of radioactivity.
What kind of financial losses are at stake for SCE? How much money are we talking about and who will pick up the tab? Edison officials have estimated the ultimate cost of closing San Onofre will be $3 billion. The company claims it has $2.7 billion in a trust fund which has been created over the years from its customers’ electricity payments, according to the Times. Whether or not SCE is willing to tap into this trust fund remains to be seen. It may also be able to collect some money from insurance policies and the $138 million steam generator warranty it has with Mitsubishi. However, any shortfall will have to be made up by either SCE customers or its stock shareholders.
Recent comments by Edison brass indicate they are much more inclined to sock it to their innocent customers (who, because SCE is a monopoly, have no choice but to purchase their electricity from SCE) than to their shareholders. According to the Times’ Michael Hiltzik, Ted Craver, the chairman and CEO of Edison International, told investment analysts in April that “all material costs related to San Onofre are recoverable from ratepayers.” Whether or not rate-paying customers or stock shareholders will bear the costs of San Onofre will ultimately be decided by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The fact that the chairman of the CPUC, Michael Peevey, is a former SCE president does not bode well for SCE customers.
Meanwhile, what about the plant itself and the estimated 1,400 tons of spent nuclear fuel that remain on its premises? Edison executives have recently said it will take “multi-decades” to decommission the plant and clean up the mess it has created. Only 25 percent of the highly toxic spent fuel is stored in dry casks. The remainder is stored in “swimming pools” that are vulnerable to earthquakes and power failures. If the fuel is exposed, as happened at Fukushima, it can self-ignite and release huge amounts of lethal radiation. Because the US has no repository for the permanent storage of high-level radioactive waste, the spent fuel at San Onofre will probably remain on-site for many years to come. Shutting down the plant’s electricity-generating operations has no effect on the spent fuel, which remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.
While San Onofre was operating at full capacity, it supplied 2,200 megawatts of electricity to about 1.4 million households. How will this electricity be replaced, and what will be the new sources of our region’s energy? According to CPUC Chairman Peevey, new electricity will probably be obtained primarily by “repowering” 11 plants along the coast that run on natural gas, according to the Times. Hopefully this will happen in a timely manner, as summer electricity demand will soon start peaking.
San Onofre was a significant contributor to Southern California’s energy supply. If its electricity is not adequately replaced this summer, we might experience rolling blackouts during heat waves, even in Pasadena.
An upside to all of this is that with the Fukushima disaster and the recent closure of San Onofre, as well as several other nuclear plants in the US, all the talk from a few years ago about a “nuclear renaissance” has effectively been put to rest. As our society develops other sources of power, solar and other renewables have never looked better.
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists