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2nd San Onofre reactor to remain offline through next summer

October 4, 2012 | 11:31 am

San Onofre nuclear plant

At least one of the two reactors at the San Onofre nuclear plant will remain offline through next summer, a senior Southern California Edison official said Friday, while activists said both units should remain shuttered.

Eight months after the nuclear plant was powered down due to equipment problems, Edison has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart one reactor -- Unit 2 -- and run it at reduced power.

But senior vice president and chief nuclear officer Pete Dietrich said Friday that it would be "next summer at the earliest" before the company is ready to submit a plan for Unit 3, which has more severe problems.

Both units have shown extensive, unexpected wear in their steam generator tubes that carry radioactive water transferring heat from the reactor core to generate electricity. The newly replaced steam generators had been operating for less than one year in Unit 3 and less than two years in Unit 2 when the wear issues surfaced.

But Edison officials said the problems in Unit 2 are less severe because of slight differences in the manufacturing of support structures in the two units, which prevented tubes from vibrating excessively and knocking against each other to the extent they did in Unit 3.

Edison's proposal to run Unit 2 at 70% power means that the plant would be generating about 800 megawatts of energy, instead of the 2,200 it provided before.

Dietrich would not comment on the costs associated with the outage or with various scenarios, including replacing the steam generators, other than to say, "If the plant can be operated safely, we feel that it's prudent to operate the plant."

Critics decried the proposal to fire Unit 2 back up as a dangerous gamble, saying it's not clear that running the unit at reduced power will prevent the conditions that caused the tube wear, as Edison and a team of experts from other companies concluded.

"I just don't believe it's appropriate to treat Southern California as a science experiment," said Arnie Gundersen, a consultant to environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has adamantly opposed plans to restart the plant. Gundersen has authored several reports on the issues at San Onofre in which he laid the blame at Edison's feet for making extensive design changes in the new steam generators. Edison has said the changes were made to keep up with industry standards.

S. David Freeman, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, who also opposes restarting the plant, said its power can be replaced through other means. Energy officials were able to put contingency plans in place to get through the summer and are already planning for next summer.

"We got through this summer, we'll get through next summer, and we'll get through the summer after that," he said.

Freeman suggested that rather than focus on repairing San Onofre or running it at partial power, officials turn their attention to developing more flexible, decentralized power sources for Southern California.

"The most unreliable thing you can rely on is a huge power plant, because it can go down," he said.

The NRC will need to review Edison's plan and sign off on it before the plant could fire back up, a process that may take months.

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-- Abby Sewell

Photo: San Onofre nuclear plant. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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