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NRC to hold public meetings on troubled San Onofre nuclear plant

June 7, 2012 |  5:36 pm

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold public meetings on the San Onofre nuclear plant
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced the first of a series of public meetings on the issues that have shuttered the San Onofre nuclear plant for more than four months.

The federal agency sent in a special inspection team in March to assess the issues with unusual wear on tubes in the plant's newly replaced steam generators.

The NRC meeting will take place June 18 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the San Juan Capistrano Community Center.

Agency spokesman Victor Dricks said NRC staffers will present preliminary findings on the extent and cause of the tube wear. The first portion of the meeting will be a technical presentation geared toward plant operator Southern California Edison, followed by a response from the utility. In the second half of the meeting, NRC staff will take questions from the public.

Edison has not submitted its plan to address the issues and restart the plant to the NRC yet.

Also Thursday, the top official at Edison International said the plant will remain out of service through the summer.

The plant has been shuttered since Jan. 31 while officials probe the extent and cause of unusual wear on tubes that carry radioactive water in the plant's newly replaced steam generators.

The NRC has ordered the plant to stay offline until Edison can identify the exact cause of the wear and how to fix it.

Ted Craver, chief executive officer of Edison, the parent company of plant operator Southern California Edison, said as the process stands, the earliest that the Unit 2 reactor could restart would be the end of summer, and Unit 3 may take longer. Most of the troubling wear was found in Unit 3.

"I don't see how we could submit [a restart plan] to the NRC before the end of July, and their process is maybe another month, so that's the end of August," Craver said. 

He said the call on when it is safe to restart the plant will be a "huge decision."

"I'm not sure there's going to be a bigger decision I make in my time as CEO here," he said.

Edison officials believe that the most concerning wear is happening because the rate of steam flow among the tubes is causing excessive vibration, leading the tubes to rub against each other. But officials still have not pinpointed exactly what led to that issue.

Craver said the steam generators, installed to replace the old, aging equipment, were designed to prevent such vibration but "the implementation of the design doesn't appear to be meeting the specification."

To date, 1,317 tubes in the plant's two working reactor units have been taken out of service, 510 in Unit 2 and 807 in Unit 3. About one-third of those were plugged because of excessive wear and the others as a preventive measure, Craver said. 

When running at full capacity, San Onofre supplies about 2,200 megawatts of power and makes up 19% of the power provided to Edison customers. With contingency plans in place, officials said Southern California should be able to get through the summer without power shortages under all but the most extreme circumstances.

A pair of mothballed generating units in Huntington Beach have been taken temporarily out of retirement, transmission upgrades were accelerated, and officials are offering incentives for customers to conserve power.

The short-term plan to restart the units could involve running at lower power to decrease the rate of steam flow. In the longer term, Craver said the options could range from adding supports for the tubes to replacing the steam generators entirely.

The steam generator problems and other issues at the plant have led some environmental groups and local residents to say the plant can't be operated safely and to call for it to be decommissioned, while others have taken issue with the possibility that consumers could end up on the hook for the defective equipment.

The steam generator replacement project cost an estimated $671 million, to be recovered from ratepayers.

"We're tired of the federal government making assurances that California relies upon for energy investments and then paying for their mistakes. Enough is enough," said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.


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