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California begins mapping future without nuclear power

June 22, 2012 |  6:37 pm

Edison, consultant spar over blame for San Onofre shutdown

California energy officials are beginning to plan for the possibility of a long-term future without the San Onofre nuclear plant.

The plant's unexpected outage of nearly five months has had officials scrambling to put a plan in place to replace its power this summer, and has become a wild card in already complicated discussions about the state's energy future.

That long-range planning process already involves dealing with the possible repercussions of climate change, a mandate to boost the state's use of renewable sources to 33% of the energy supply by 2020 and another mandate to phase out a process known as once-through cooling that uses ocean water to cool coastal power plants, which will probably take some other plants out of service. 

"Some of the weaknesses we have in the infrastructure [of Southern California] are laid bare by San Onofre," said Steve Berberich, chief executive of the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit that oversees most of the state's energy grid.

Berberich and other energy leaders gathered in Los Angeles for a meeting convened by the California Energy Commission on long-term plans for the state's grid. The shuttered Southern California nuclear plant loomed large over the discussions.

The plant's 2,200 megawatts of power provide electricity to about 1.4 million homes, but the facility also provides voltage support to the transmission system that allows power to be imported from elsewhere, particularly to the San Diego area.

The plant has been down since Jan. 31 because of problems with unusual wear on tubes in the newly replaced steam generators. Plant operator Southern California Edison has not yet submitted a plan to fix the issues to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and has said the plant will remain out of service at least through the summer. It's unclear how long San Onofre will remain out of commission. 

Officials said that with contingency plans in place for the summer, including temporarily bringing two retired gas-fired units in Huntington Beach back into service, Southern California should not see rolling blackouts under most circumstances. But an extreme heat wave or outage at another power plant or major transmission line could strain the system.

California ISO officials said they are beginning to plan for the possibility that the plant will still be offline in the summer of 2013 and hope to have the work done by the end of July. 

Using the Huntington Beach units will not be an option next summer because that plant's air emission credits will go to a new plant opening in the City of Industry.

That plant should be operating by summer 2013, but its location is not as good as the Huntington Beach units' to make up for the power lost from San Onofre, ISO officials said.

The ISO is also beginning to look at long-range scenarios in which California would use no nuclear power from either San Onofre or the state's one other nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon.

S. David Freeman, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, denounced the state's leaders for waiting until a crisis hit the San Onofre plant before planning for other options.

"I just personally feel a sense of embarrassment that we have let a situation go where we have put too many eggs in a nuclear basket in one part of the state," he said. "Why are we sitting here today without adequate transmission to move power freely in the state of California?"

Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission is looking at launching an investigation into the costs of repairing or replacing San Onofre's steam generators and the potential impacts on ratepayers from the outage. The commission was set to vote to open the inquiry Thursday but postponed the action until August. 

PUC Commissioner Michel Florio said the reason for the delay was to give Edison and the NRC more time to look into the technical side of the problems at the plant.

The NRC said Monday that the issues appear to stem from inaccurate computer modeling by steam generator manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. In a statement, Mitsubishi said that it had designed the generators "in line with our customer’s specific needs and with customer input, using the best-available data and established industry standards" and that the NRC's findings were preliminary.

 -- Abby Sewell

 Photo: San Onofre nuclear power plant. Credit: Los Angeles Times