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.