Southern California heating up as public and utility head for face-off over repairs

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A report authored by Fairewinds Associates warns that a more detailed study is needed on the alloy tubing in the plant’s steam generators before the twin reactors at San Onofre are restarted, according to The Associated Press.   The utility that runs California’s San Onofre nuclear plant misled federal regulators about equipment and design changes that are the likely cause of extensive wear on tubing that carries radioactive water, a report commissioned by an environmental group claimed Tuesday.

A year ago, Southern California Edison announced the installation of four new steam generators at the San Onofre nuclear power plant, hailing it as a major boost to electricity production.  The four generators, manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, were installed in 2010 and 2011. Edison assured regulators and the public the upgrades would save ratepayers over one billion dollars in the next ten years, and that they would last until 2022, when San Onofre’s license expires, and possibly beyond that if the license is extended.

In a February filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Edison noted that although the steam generators are under a 20-year warranty, Mitsubishi is not liable for the replacement of the steam generators according to the purchase report. Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive and chief engineer of the energy consulting company Fairewinds Associates, who is frequently critical of nuclear plant safety, estimated that the tube wear is 10 to 15 times the normal rate.

The San Onofre plant is known for it’s safety culture, a lack of proper seismic calculations was one of six “green” findings outlined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in an Oct. 14 letter, in November the utility was heavily criticized by the public after information about an ammonia leak did not appear on SONGS’ site until two hours after the alert was declared, and workers near the leak began being evacuated.

An NRC report later faulted Edison for the failure by workers to recognize and repair the degraded equipment that were found to have caused the ammonia leak.

Instead, Edison has had to endure the longest outage in San Onofre’s history, and federal regulators say the plant should remain idle until they are confident no more tubes will leak or rupture.

The utility is struggling to cope with increasing costs for repairs, backup power for the plant, and replacement power for the consumers.   It remains unknown how much the outage and fixes will cost, and the utility has repeatedly said it’s too early to say whether ratepayers might be asked to cover the bill.

CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the commission has not determined whether ratepayers could be asked to foot the bill for costs related to the outage.

“Ratepayers shouldn’t be responsible for Edison’s mistakes, and they shouldn’t be responsible for the mistakes of the vendors Edison contracts with,” said Matthew Freedman, staff counsel to The Utility Reform Network.

However, the other alternative that California will be pushed to elect, is to build a new plant.  Pressure is already coming from the industry, and the governor has already held meetings discussing the option.

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