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California's Nuclear Freeze May Lead to Brownouts During Summer Heat

The 7.5 million people living near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California just received some important visitors: Nuclear Regulatory Chairman Gregory Jaczko came by with other important dignitaries to discuss with them the small radiation leaks at the facility there.

The leaks are not a danger to the public, say NRC officials, who are still saying that they won’t authorize the re-opening of the units until the agency and the utility can pinpoint the cause. The reactors in question have operated safely for 25 years, but Southern California Edison has recently replaced some steam generators that have deteriorating tubes. Given Japan’s crisis, officials want to be doubly sure everything is in working order.

“Although the leak did not pose a threat to plant workers or the surrounding communities, and was less than the NRC requirement for shutdown, plant officials shut down the plant anyway,” says Eliot Brenner, director of public affairs for the NRC, in his blog.

Specifically, the nuclear station that is known as SONGS, is located between Los Angeles and San Diego and is one of two nuclear facilities in California. Some wear and tear was found on SONG’s Unit 2 in January and it was closed for repair as a result. Shortly after, more pronounced deterioration was found on Unit 3, which then suffered a small radiation leak.

SONGs has functioned safely and efficiently. As part of the routine maintenance, Southern California Edison has replaced parts. The utility spent about $680 million on the steam generators -- costs that are passed through to its customers. Edison says that the tubes inside of the generators are vibrating and creating subsequent friction, leading to leaks. That has to be fixed.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who represents the district, said that safety is of paramount importance. He expressed hope that the two units would be ready by summer. That’s when the demand for energy would escalate and without SONGs, the threat of rolling blackouts would be pervasive.

“There’s a balancing act,” says Issa, to reporters. “We want to make sure we have 100 percent safety, but we also want to make sure the ratepayers are getting what they are paying for.”

Absolute Guarantee

Citizen groups have said that without an absolute guarantee that the plants are safe, they should not re-open. They are accusing Southern California Edison of being more concerned about stemming their lost revenues than with safety.

As for the NRC, Jaczko says that the cause of the vibration and friction must be  understood and stopped. The utility then needs to provide a remediation plan. Jaczko defended Southern California Edison, saying that it has always acted above board and with the best interest of its customers in mind.

Since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, the commission has been in high gear. It has ordered U.S. plants to re-examine their flood and seismic risks, and then to develop secondary plans should the auxiliary power systems fail to perform. That was the key problem with respect to events in Japan in March 2011. To that end, the NRC has ordered plants here to have state-of-the art monitoring devices at the spent fuel pools. That’s where the radioactive fuel rods are cooled before they are later stored in above-ground concrete encased steel barriers.

The extra precaution is necessary in today’s times. And so are some additional questions, such as whether the global community ought to consider smaller nuclear reactors. Such “right-sized” units have some critical advantages over their larger counterparts in that they would avoid any Japan-like crisis.

Those 45-100 megawatt electric modules are transported by train to sites where they are then assembled and fueled. If more electric generation is required, the modules can be laid side-by-side. If one of them goes down, it can be maintained and the whole system does not have to be shut down. Ditto if one needs to be refueled. Their size gives them some cost advantages, as well as fewer regulatory hoops to jump through.

“I’d like to rebuild the United States first and then sell overseas,” says Christopher Mowry, president of Babcock & Wilcox modular nuclear division, in an earlier talk with this writer. The goal, he adds, is keep the prices on par with competing generators at about $2 billion. 


Despite the headwinds, the nuclear industry here is determined. It’s already on route to build some larger reactors and soon after, it will pursue the smaller ones. Expansion will come, albeit it will occur more slowly than had been anticipated.


EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

energybizinsider@energycentral.com


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