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San Onofre layoffs raise questions about nuclear plant's future

August 21, 2012 |  9:29 am

Plant

More than six months after a leaking steam generator tube prompted a complete shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, Southern California Edison officials announced plans to lay off nearly one-third of its workforce, leading many to wonder if the troubled plant would ever fully reopen.

The company announced Monday a planned reduction of about 730 employees that will bring down staffing at the plant in northern San Diego County to 1,500. Details of the cuts will be worked out later this year, officials said.

Rochelle Becker, executive director of the watchdog group Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, said she believes the layoffs show Edison is being disingenuous about its plans for the plant.

"You can't lay off 700 people when you're trying to restart a plant — you hire more people when you have problems," Becker said. "I think the utility is being unfair to the ratepayers. I think they're being unfair to the workforce. I think if they're not going to operate this plant, they should come out and say they're not going to operate the plant."

On Jan. 31, one of the plant's steam generator tubes leaked, releasing a small amount of radioactive steam. The leak led to a complete shutdown of the plant and the eventual discovery of excessive wear on hundreds more tubes in the newly replaced steam generators.

Company officials have said that they hope to submit a restart plan for Unit 2 to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of the year, but have backed off from making any projections about if or when Unit 3 might return to service.

Edison said in a statement that the company had begun plans to downsize more than two years ago after concluding that San Onofre's staffing and costs were "significantly higher" than at similar nuclear plants. In documents filed with the California Public Utilities Commission in 2010, the company outlined a projected reduction of 500 workers by October 2012.

Edison spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre said no staffing cuts have actually taken place since then, but acknowledged that the plant's recent troubles influenced the decision on the number of jobs to be eliminated.

In a statement, Edison said, "The steam generator issues at [the plant] also require that SCE be prudent with its future spending while SCE and regulators review the long-term viability of the nuclear plant."

Edison and the PUC have come under pressure over the costs of the outage to ratepayers, with the utility commission's Division of Ratepayer Advocates urging the panel to immediately cut utility rates so that customers would no longer be paying $54 million per month in operating costs "for a plant that is no longer 'used and useful.' "

San Onofre employee union representatives could not be immediately reached for comment on the planned layoffs.

The plant's full workforce has been on duty during the outage to assist with activities relating to the inspections and repairs on the steam generators, including plugging 1,317 tubes to take them out of service either because they were damaged or as a precautionary measure. That activity has now abated.

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— Abby Sewell

Photo: The San Onfore nuclear power plant. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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