San Onofre 1st anniversary FAQ: Everything you need to know about the troubled nuclear plant

A couple stands near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.
A couple stands near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

A year ago today, Southern California Edison technicians at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) shut down the plant after they detected a small radiation leak.

Since then, that tiny leak has turned into a big problem for:

Now that a year has come and gone since San Onofre was unplugged, we present:

"Everything You Need to Know About San Onofre: the First Anniversary Edition."

Q: Why did the plant shut down?

A: Exactly one year ago, a tube burst inside one of San Onofre’s newly installed steam generators, leading to a leak of radioactive steam. No one was in danger from that tiny leak, but inspectors later found that hundreds of similar tubes carrying radioactive water had worn down and could release radiation.

Q: Who decides if San Onofre reopens?

A: The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees all nuclear power plants in the United States, and NRC inspectors are currently reviewing Southern California Edison’s restart proposal. The agency recently established a separate panel to address San Onofre, based at its regional headquarters in Arlington, Texas. 

Q: What does Edison propose?

A: The utility has asked for permission to restart San Onofre’s Reactor 2 at 70 percent power for five months. Edison says that operating at reduced power will alleviate the conditions that caused tubes inside the steam generator to vibrate too much and rub against each other. There is no plan to restart the more heavily damaged Reactor 3.

Reactor 1, which had been in use since the 1960s, was shut down in 1992 – more than a decade early – because of similar problems with tubes wearing out too quickly.

Q: When will there be a decision?

A: NRC officials have stressed repeatedly that they will take as long as they need to evaluate Edison’s proposal and make sure the plant is safe to operate.

“We at the NRC will certainly not approve [San Onofre] to re-start unless we’re assured they can operate safely,” said chairman Allison Macfarlane earlier this month when she visited the plant for the first time. “We don’t have a timeline on this issue. We are taking the time we need to work through it.”

There may be no timeline, but the NRC does list “milestones” on its website. The agency recently pushed back the date for when it expects to have a decision from March to late April/early May.

Q: Who pays for all of this?

A: Therein lies the $1.1 billion dollar question. That’s how much the California Public Utilities Commission said that Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric customers pay every year in San Onofre-related costs. The CPUC is currently investigating whether ratepayers should be on the hook for those costs — about $10 a month per household — and if they should get a retroactive refund for the time the plant has been offline. Edison is trying to delay a decision on refunds until next year and says it is trying to recover costs through insurance and warranties.

The CPUC has scheduled two hearings on Feb. 21 in Costa Mesa to get public comment about ratepayer issues. We have details below.

Q: The plant’s been closed for a year, and it doesn’t seem like there have been any power supply problems. So do we even need San Onofre?

A: Yes, say officials at California-ISO, which manages the state’s power grid. They credit conservation measures, a tepid economy and a mild summer for helping Southern California get through last summer without San Onofre.

What also helped is that a natural gas power plant in Huntington Beach was brought back online. But that was a temporary measure because the plant's carbon credits expire.

Aside from the considerable power San Onofre once generated, it also provided voltage support to bring power from Northern California, where there is a surplus of power.

“All electricity on a transmission line needs support from other electricity in order to keep moving," explained Cal-ISO spokesman Steven Greenlee. “It’s kind of like what water pressure does for water in a hose.” 

Q: What are the other main arguments for restarting San Onofre?

A: Edison officials say they have come up with a plan to operate the plant safely, so it would be imprudent to keep such a vital power source offline.

“It’s important to us and to our customers that an asset that’s able to be utilized safely is utilized to support the electricity needs of our customers and the people that live around that plan,” Edison senior vice-president and chief nuclear officer Pete Dietrich said last fall.

There’s also the issue of what would replace San Onofre. If you’re concerned about carbon emissions, the alternative could be far worse.

“Realistically, what we face is a tradeoff between using the nuclear power infrastructure that we have and producing electricity using natural gas,” said Per Peterson, who teaches nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley. “We need to recognize if we do shut these [nuclear] plants down, there’s an opportunity cost because it slows down the rate at which we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Solar, wind, and other forms of alternative energy aren’t developed enough yet to meet our energy needs, according to Peterson.

Q: What are the main arguments for keeping the plant closed?

A: Even strong supporters of nuclear power point out that the problems at San Onofre have been without precedent in the nuclear industry.

“The situation that San Onofre faces remains in uncharted territory, given how unique the problems are that they face,” said Peterson.

Now that Edison is proposing to restart the plant at 70 percent power – something San Onofre was never licensed nor designed for – some local residents say the utility is asking to do a science experiment in their backyard.

“They’re asking to experiment with our lives, our safety, our children, our food, our homes and our economy,” said Gene Stone, who lives near the plant and founded a group called Residents Organized for a Safe Environment, which opposes the restart.

Stone and other activists also argue that San Onofre has a poor safety record, would be at major risk during an earthquake, and that Edison and the NRC have been too cozy with each other and secretive with the public.

There’s also the matter of a license review. Unlike the process now underway to approve Edison’s restart proposal, it would require a judicial-style hearing with testimony under oath.

Friends of the Earth, a Washington-based environmental group, argues that the NRC should have required Edison to go through a license amendment process before it installed the faulty steam generators at San Onofre.

The NRC is currently reviewing that petition, as well as a separate one in which Friends of the Earth argues Edison’s current restart proposal should also require a license review.

Q: What are the main entities involved in the San Onofre decision?

Q: When can I weigh in?

A: The NRC will host its next public meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12, from 6 – 9 p.m. at the Capo Beach Church in Capistrano Beach, Calif.

The agency will discuss the status of its inspection and technical evaluation and take questions and comments from members of the public.

The CPUC will hold two hearings to get input on its ratepayer investigation on Thursday, Feb. 21, from 2 p.m.-5 p.m. and 6 p.m.-9 p.m. at the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center.  

Do you have other questions? Weigh in below in the comments and we'll try to find the answers for you.