Environment & Science

Power outages could hit Southern California with San Onofre nuclear plant shut down this summer

The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant is seen on April 6, 2012.
The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant is seen on April 6, 2012.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Utility officials said Friday that power outages are possible this summer with the San Onofre nuclear power plant offline.

Anti-nuclear activists aren't buying it and said the region doesn’t need the power plant’s energy.

One environmental group called for the state to hold public hearings before the nuclear plant is restarted.

Federal regulators plan to release a report from a special investigative team into problems with tube wear at the plant's two reactors.

It is all part of the continuing saga of problems at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), which sits on a seaside bluff straddling the borders of San Diego and Orange counties.

Southern California Edison said plans to make up the power generation lost from SONGS include buying power on the wholesale market, conservation and from re-starting a natural gas-fired power plant in Huntington Beach. The gas-fired plant can provide enough juice for about 400,000 homes.

Jennifer Manfrè with Southern California Edison (SCE) said the company also has completed the upgrade of a transmission line to help.

“That will help facilitate imports to the San Diego area and help maintain power voltage in Southern Orange County,” said Manfrè

She said the moves will help the company get through a "normal" summer. But any emergencies or extreme heat when the twin reactors are offline could mean power outages or rotating blackouts.

Manfrè said that, if that happens, any outages will hit southern Orange and northern San Diego counties hardest.

She said there will be no immediate cost to SCE customers.

"Any costs passed on to ratepayers is determined by the California Public Utilities Commission," said Manfrè.

The problems at the nuclear plant started last January, when the Unit 3 reactor was shut down as a precaution after a tube break.

Traces of radiation escaped at the time, but officials said there was no danger to workers or neighbors. Unit 2 had been taken offline earlier that month for maintenance, but investigators later found unexpected wear on hundreds of tubes in both units.

Safety issues at the plant have attracted congressional scrutiny. Some officials in nearby communities have been calling for San Onofre to shut down permanently.

The Irvine City Council urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to thoroughly review safety conditions at the plant before it is considered for relicensing in 2022.

“We want Gov. Jerry Brown, the California Public Utilities Commission, our state legislators and local city councils to hold public hearings before any replacement of steam generator tubes, repairs or re-starting of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station,” said Gene Stone with the San Clemente-based Residents for a Safe Environment (ROSE).

On Friday, Stone called for an investigation to determine if re-starting SONGS is cost-effective and beneficial to the region.

“ROSE strongly believes the California Independent System Operator reports that indicate California has enough power for the summer without San Onofre,” said Stone. “But we will need to watch closely to see if there is any artificial manipulation of the state’s electrical grid."

Stone said there are many questions he wants answered.

“For example, who will pay for the repair or replacement of the steam generators, will the public and the NRC allow SCE to perform a risky experiment to re-start the plant,” asked Stone. “Such as starting up the plant until the steam generator tubes start to vibrate and then lower the pressure down until it stops vibrating? That sounds very dangerous to us.”

Stone's group, Friends of the Earth, and other environmental organizations want the plant shut down permanently.

While the state has not scheduled any public hearings on the operation of the San Onofre plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is holding a public meeting June 18 at 6 p.m. in San Juan Capistrano to share a report on the plant’s tube wear issues with Southern California Edison.

The NRC and SCE inspectors found the tube wear is being caused by vibration and friction with adjacent tubes and bracing, but investigators have yet to say why that's happening or how they will fix it.

The special NRC investigative team is expected to release their findings into the causes of the excessive wear in tubing that carries radioactive water at the June 18 meeting.

The NRC has said there is no timetable to restart the reactors, which were replaced in 2009 and 2010 in a $670 million overhaul.

About 7.4 million Californians live within 50 miles of San Onofre, which can power 1.4 million homes.