So long, San Onofre (in like 700 million years)


In the winter of 2005, I took a tour of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a two-gigawatt power plant near San Clemente, Calif., 70 miles south of where I live. I was willing to entertain, if only for the sake of a story, that nuclear power offered a solution to impending climate catastrophe, as so many planet-minded big thinkers — Steward Brand, Jameses Lovelock and Hansen — had begun to argue. It was the dawn of a new nuclear age, and my guide, Ray Golden, then a spokesman for the plant’s majority owner, Southern California Edison, was doing all he could to make nuclear power less scary and more fascinating and fun. During my visit, I held a dosimeter over a radium-dial Big Ben clock, a shard of red Fiestaware and uranium rock, listening for the telltale pings indicating the presence of radiation. Then Golden held a piece of paper between the dosimeter and each object; the pinging faded. Assured that the alpha particles at least couldn’t penetrate paper — and therefore couldn’t get through my skin — I held the rock in my hand.

San Onofre has not produced power since January 31, 2012, when one of its steam generators, which had been installed just a few years ago, leaked radioactive water that escaped through a vent into the atmosphere. On June 7, when Edison announced, rather abruptly, that the plant’s two reactors, both built in the 1980s, would never start up again, it left California with one remaining nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon on the Central Coast, and the southwest with one last source of nuclear-fired electrons, the Palo Verde plant in western Arizona. None are in the offing, and it's hard to imagine any will be, ever. We have come to the end of an era — the nuclear power renaissance I had set out to investigate a decade ago has come to nothing.

Yes, a handful of new reactors have been proposed and a couple are even under construction, interrupting a hiatus that lasted nearly a quarter of a century. And the same band of shiny, PR-minded techno-enviros continue to argue that nuclear power is the only solution to climate change (their latest effort, Robert Stone’s documentary “Pandora’s Promise,” is simply one long advert for dreamy advanced waste-free reactors that don’t yet exist).

But other proposed plants have been shelved for lack of cash — building a real-world nuclear plant requires a capital outlay in the billions, which is a compelling deterrent as government subsidies wane and the price of both natural gas and solar panels drops. Last summer, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission put all new license applications and renewals on hold after an appeals court ordered the agency to rework plans for the future of spent fuel. Despite all the efforts of people like Golden, the Nuclear Energy Institute and handsome Michael Shellenberger, nuclear energy remains as tantalizingly out-of-reach as it ever was.

And, frankly, just as frightening, too. If the San Onofre debacle proves anything, is that only tough and conscientious regulation keeps nuclear energy from killing people. And sadly, regulatory agencies are full of humans — sometimes compromised, always overworked and too-often politically motivated humans. And many times they get things just plain wrong.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, units 2 and 3

The first reactor at San Onofre was built in the mid-1960s as a “turnkey” facility: with the help of the federal government, the manufacturer, Westinghouse, designed, built and tested the reactor, then handed over the keys to the utility; it was a promotional deal. When I visited, the hallways of the administrative building were lined with a series of photographs, taken between 1964 and 1968, showing bulldozers flattening the sea cliffs and towering Gantry cranes lowering components into their places. I asked Golden whether there had been any controversy over San Onofre’s initial construction. Did the plant require extra security? “No,” he said. “Just look at the cars.” He pointed to one of the early photos, showing stately Chevrolets and Buicks parked within a few feet of the construction site, which was protected by chain-link fence. “You could drive right up to the edge of the plant.”

Nuclear reactors these days are far more heavily fortressed, of course, and closely regulated — some say too regulated. The spin coming from nuclear energy’s publicists is that San Onofre had to close because of “continuing uncertainty,” in the words of Edison CEO Ted Craver, related to regulatory delays. But in fact more regulation early on could have prevented the whole mess: There was evidence to suggest that the design of the steam generators, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan, packed too many tubes in too little space; producing more power at the expense of stability (see “Going Nuclear on Nuclear,” HCN, 6/11/2012). The design had only been tested via computer modeling before the generators, which cost $800 million apiece, were installed in the reactors. But the U.S. agency that oversees nuclear plant operation and safety, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, accepted Edison’s premise that the generators were enough like the old ones that they didn’t need a thorough review. That proved to be an expensive, and potentially dangerous decision.

Edison’s current spokesperson, Jennifer Manfrè, defended the utility’s role in all of this by claiming that the utility simply trusted in “Mitsubishi’s calculations,” which showed the machines were sound. “We are not computer code experts,” she added. “We are experts at operating a nuclear facility.” But if components only get tested on computers, doesn’t operating a nuclear facility require some expertise in code? The statement inspires little confidence in a utility that, since Golden left in 2007, seems to care little about public outreach.

San Onofre’s demise might, however, inspire some faith that the current incarnation of the NRC under Chairman Allison Macfarlane is functioning as it should. An MIT-trained geologist, Macfarlane was one of the more rational voices who opposed storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev., (see “Mountain of Doubt, HCN, 1/9/2009). And it was Macfarlane who took seriously a plea from the environmental group Friends of the Earth that San Onofre should undergo a full licensing hearing before Edison would be allowed to restart it. It’s that license review that the utility didn’t consider worth the expense and effort. The utility’s leaders might also have feared they wouldn’t win.

So there the disabled behemoth sits, awaiting a decommissioning project that will continue for decades, requiring continued regulatory oversight and inspiring never-ending debates about who should pay and how much. Edison has a $2.7 billion fund saved just for this purpose, but history shows these projects never go smoothly. The Unit 1 reactor, which was shut down in 1992, was supposed to be boxed up and shipped to a repository in South Carolina, but no one could figure out how to transport a 770-ton bundle of radioactive junk across the country. Instead, it remains where it is, encased in concrete, waiting for the transmutation of the elements to complete its ten-thousand-million-year-long conversion from deadly isotopes to stable lead. We won't be free of it anytime soon.

Judith Mernit is a contributing editor for High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user NRCgov.

Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:37 PM
Half of CA nuclear capacity has been shut down for about a YEAR AND A HALF!

N☢ problems... ZERO ... + Much new Solar added...

Remember, CA has plenty of Energy without any nuclear reactors!

California has excess power without nuclear, according to data from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the electricity grid operator, the California Independent System Operator (ISO). Here is their chart showing that CA has a 20% (and growing) surplus of Energy without either El Diablo or San Onofre (which has be shuttered because of faulty NEW steam generators for about a year and a half) nuclear generators!

+ There is a simple reason that California has the highest rates in the USA!

The California Public Utility Commission (who sets the rates) has allowed the Utilities to rip off rate payers so the Utilities can reward their shareholders.
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:39 PM
Seen these 2 articles and their comments:[…]/#c21031

The "system" failed to protect the 8 million people in southern California from SCE slipping its 4 poorly designed replacement steam generators past NRC Regulators, they failed within 2 years (Unit 2) and only 1 year (Unit 3) and have cost ratepayers about a Billion Dollars!

In reality, ratepayers are really lucky since now San Onofre is being decommissioned; so your claim of too much oversight is unfounded, since the USA cannot afford a Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster like Fukushima!

Instead of the nuclear industry being outraged by this, all we hear is what a wonderful technology nuclear is, which is only correct until something goes wrong, then it is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE!

Ask The Japanese!
Captain D
Captain D
Jun 18, 2013 02:43 PM
☢ Industry Trying To Retain Market Share, But At What Cost to US - Jun 14, 2013 - 10:26 AM

Get ready for ever more Nuclear Baloney* that in essence says the San Onofre was a fluke but all the rest of the industry is just peachy!

Big Utilities have big PR budgets so they are now trying to sway ratepayers back toward risky nuclear using a number of talking points like:

 √ Nobody has been killed (yet) by nuclear, that we have been told about.
 √ Nuclear is good for the environment, except when it leaks radioactive pollution for decades like Fukushima and the other nuclear accidents.
 √ Required for base load to maintain the grid, which gets along fine when nuclear is shut down like it has in CA for a year and a half.

Lets cut to the punchline: If Germany can phase out Nuclear, so can the USA, the only thing standing in the way is the Nuclear Industry and their strangle hold on congressional Leaders that make our Energy rules! If people that installed rooftop solar got paid for their energy at the same rate that Utilities got paid for the energy that they generated (A Level Energy Playing Field) then Solar (of all flavors) would be installed everywhere, not just in Big Utility Projects! This would allow everyone to not only use Energy that they generate but sell back to the GRID (which we all pay for) for others to use! Ask yourself why the Utilities should be the only ones profiting from the sale of Energy?

Regarding Nuclear, the USA cannot afford the Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster RISK of one or more reactors melting down like the four did in Fukushima! Just because it has not happened yet in the USA is no guarantee that it will not occur tomorrow; that and the unknown costs of long term nuclear waste storage make nuclear no longer a good deal at any price, despite what the nuclear industry PR machine says!

N☢ More Nuclear Business As Usual,

Ratepayers have been ripped off enough.

*Nuclear Baloney (NB)

Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Jun 18, 2013 04:52 PM
I'm trying to understand what it is about this post that caused people to read it as somehow pro-nuclear. The response on my Facebook page is similar to Captain D's three comments. Just to be clear, I made no "claim of too much oversight." I argue to the contrary throughout.

Judith Lewis Mernit
High Country News Contributing Editor
G.R.L. Cowan
G.R.L. Cowan
Jun 20, 2013 10:54 AM
You may have tripped those people's not-sufficiently-antinuclear detectors
by mentioning James Hansen, who with Pushker Kharecha has recently published , "Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power". (As I recall Hansen was
still declaredly a nuclear agnostic back when we last talked.)
Jim Mowrey
Jim Mowrey
Dec 20, 2013 12:01 PM
Two things that future finders of this article might find of interest.

One is a recent (Dec. 2013) NPR story on how while US greenhouse emissions have gone down (due at least in part due to the Great Recession and slow growth since), CA emissions have increased 10% due to San Onofre being off line and getting electrical power from increased fossil fuel, despite CA population "growth" going negative during the same period.

Also, a town in CO approved a 147 wind turbine "farm" that will cover 37,000 acres and produce 150 MW of electricity (I'm assuming virtually all of it was net, and 37,000 acres is about 57.7 square miles). This works out to 0.004 MW net/acre. San Onofre had three units at various times, which could produce 436 MWe net, 1070 MWe and 1080 MWe on 87 acres for a net of 30.8 MWe net/acre. (The little "e" is electrical as opposed to thermal MW, a measure of how much total energy is released in the core of the reactor). As far as availability goes (how often a unit runs versus total time including downtime, operating at less than capacity, etc.), to a first approximation, the wind blowing/not blowing/blowing lightly/maintenance etc. would be about the same.
Jim Mowrey
Jim Mowrey
Dec 21, 2013 10:04 AM
I found out that the initial report on the new CO wind farm was incorrect. The 37000 acre farm in southern CO will produce 250 MW of electricity, not 150 MW. The generation density is therefore 0.00675 MW/acre. Sorry for my confusion; there are 150 large turbines, not 150 MW. Can replace SONG with 383,000 acres of turbines, or just under 600 square miles.

My point is that ALL power sources have "engineering tradeoffs". If you're not an engineer, that might not be apparent. There is no such thing as a perfect power source.