San Onofre investigation is postponed
As costs of the San Onofre nuclear plant outage continue to mount, the California Public Utilities Commission postponed a decision to open an investigation into the plant’s troubles and the potential impact on ratepayers.
The commission had been scheduled to vote Thursday to open the investigation, which would have asked plant owners Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to give a full accounting of the anticipated costs to ratepayers if the plant does not come back online or is not restored to full power.
But it now appears that commissioners will wait until Nov. 1, when the plant will have been out of service for nine months.
After that point, state law requires the commission to open an investigation and consider lowering the utility’s rates, and potentially refunding money to customers so they would not be paying for the costs of a plant that is not producing power.
The move to postpone the investigation came two days after Southern California Edison, which owns a 78% share in the plant, disclosed that it has spent $117 million to date replacing the lost power and an additional $48 million on inspections and repairs since the plant shut down six months ago over problems with newly replaced steam generators.
Edison Chief Executive Ted Craver said during a call with investors that it’s not clear whether the plant will ever be able to operate at full power without once again replacing the equipment and that the company can't estimate how much the total costs will be.
But in January, a tube carrying radioactive water sprung a leak, leading to the revelation that many more tubes were wearing out more quickly than they should.
In total, about 8.7% of the plant’s nearly 39,000 steam generator tubes have showed some signs of wear, and 1,317 have been plugged to take them out of service, either because of excessive wear or as a precaution.
An investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission blamed faulty computer modeling by manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for inaccurately predicting conditions in the steam generator, leading to excessive vibration of the tubes, as well as manufacturing differences exacerbating the issues in reactor Unit 3. It remains unclear why the modeling error occurred.
Craver said Unit 2, which has seen less of the most unusual type of wear involving tubes rubbing against other tubes, might be able to come back online at reduced power, but “it is not clear at this time if Unit 3 will be able to restart without extensive additional repairs.”
Edison indicated that it will de-fuel the Unit 3 reactor and put it in "lay up condition" while it proceeds with more testing and analysis.
The company estimated that it would cost an additional $25 million to bring Unit 2 back online but could not give an estimate of the cost for Unit 3. If the utilities commission opens an investigation, the company will be required to answer that question.
Edison officials told investors that they hope to recover some of the costs of repairs under Mitsubishi's warranty, which covers up to $137 million, and will seek insurance money to cover other costs. But the company said there is no assurance that those sources will cover all the costs.
The company has yet to submit a restart plan to the NRC, which will need to give approval before either unit can fire back up.
A group of ratepayer advocate and anti-nuclear organizations sent a letter to the utility commission urging that it open an investigation "expeditiously" rather than waiting.
"SCE is a large utility staffed with highly skilled professionals who routinely provide information to multiple regulatory agencies," the letter said. "It is difficult to understand how the initiation of a single CPUC proceeding to review the current situation would place an excessive burden on the sizeable resources possessed by SCE."
PUC President Michael Peevey said in a statement that the commission's response to the outage had been "vigorous from the beginning," and said the commission will be working with other energy leaders to consider the long-term impacts of the outage.
-- Abby Sewell
Photo: The state Public Utilities Commission has postponed a decision to open an investigation into the San Onofre nuclear plant’s troubles. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times