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Quake faults near San Onofre nuclear plant to be studied

April 27, 2012 |  5:15 pm

Southern California Edison announced Friday that it will collaborate with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on seismic studies looking at offshore faults near the San Onofre nuclear plant, beginning later this year.

Edison requested approval last year from the California Public Utilities Commission to recover $64 million from ratepayers for seismic studies at the plant. A PUC administrative law judge issued a proposed decision last month granting the request, but it is still pending final approval from the commission.

It was not immediately clear whether the studies to be conducted by Scripps would be part of the $64-million application pending or would be an additional effort.

[Updated at 4:34 p.m.: Caroline McAndrews, Edison's director of nuclear strategic projects, said the collaboration with Scripps will be part of the work covered in the application pending before the CPUC. She said discussions with Scripps had begun last August, and that the work done in collaboration with Scripps would account for about half of the seismic study budget.

Scripps professor Neal Driscoll, who will be one of the lead scientists on the offshore studies, said the effort will mark the first time in 20 or 30 years that this type of data has been aggregated off the coast of Southern California.

"Having academia partner with industry is the way of the future," he said].

Edison said Scripps scientists will take the lead on the studies off San Onofre State Beach, where they will use specially equipped boats towing underwater microphones to collect data that will be made available to other experts and to the public. The surveys will evaluate existing and potential faults as well as imaging the underwater terrain.

In a statement, Edison said the involvement of Scripps will add “objective and world-class expertise in geophysics” to the studies.

The group Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility has argued that the PUC should require an independent peer review panel to oversee and review the studies at San Onofre. Such a panel was created for similar studies at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, but the judge’s proposed decision on Edison’s funding request found that the panel at Diablo Canyon had been “too cumbersome for prompt and efficient action” and did not recommend taking the same measure for the studies at San Onofre.

John Geesman, an attorney for the alliance and former member of the California Energy Commission, said he saw the collaboration with Scripps as an attempt by Edison to “immunize themselves from the argument that the CPUC should insist on a prospective peer review process.”

Geesman said that the involvement of Scripps might be a good thing but that the PUC still needs to set up a “credible peer review body" to make sure the right studies are done.

The outcome of the seismic studies could help to determine whether San Onofre can be re-licensed when its current license expires in 2022. Edison has not decided whether to apply for renewal.

The plant is currently out of service while Edison tries to determine what is causing steam generator tubes that carry radioactive water to wear out more quickly than they should. One tube sprang a leak Jan. 31, releasing a small amount of radioactive steam and prompting the plant to be taken offline. Since then, 509 out of about 39,000 tubes in the two working reactor units have been taken out of service because of excessive wear.


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Photo: San Onofre nuclear facility. Credit: Los Angeles Times