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Nuclear Power Struggle

San Onofre's big promises and big failure


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San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

San Onofre nuclear plant

Replacing four of the San Onofre nuclear plant’s biggest parts took 10 years and cost almost $700 million. SDG&E and others said the project was premature. It was supposed to boost reliability and save money. Instead, it’s been a disaster. And the repercussions will extend far beyond rolling blackouts.

The high-radiation alarm that sounded January 31 at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in northern San Diego County signaled trouble. At the time, it wasn’t clear just how serious it was.

Highly pressurized, scalding hot, radioactive water was leaking, deep within Southern California’s only nuclear power plant. And one of San Onofre’s thick concrete containment domes, the infamous twin structures that resemble breasts, wasn’t doing its job. A tiny amount of radioactive particles was escaping into the environment.

One reactor was already off that day, part of a planned refueling outage. Operators rapidly shut down the other. Only a tiny amount of radiation leaked out—small enough, authorities would say, that human health was never endangered at the plant or in nearby San Clemente.

But with that alarm, the San Onofre nuclear power plant, whose selling point was its 24/7/365 reliability, suddenly wasn’t so reliable any more.

Something remarkable happened that day. Southern California’s largest electricity source, capable of powering 1.4 million homes, was turned off.

“They said we were being paranoid, but sometimes being paranoid means you’re right”

That was January.

Now, six months later, the nuclear plant that’s supposed to always be on is still off and will be until at least late August. No date for restarting it has been set, sending state energy officials scrambling to fill the gap.

To make up for the lost power, a shuttered power plant in Huntington Beach has reopened and the state has expedited other projects to stabilize the electricity grid. Still, San Diego Gas & Electric, which gets 20 percent of its power from the plant, warns that rolling outages are possible during emergencies this summer and is calling for customers to conserve. Meanwhile, the plant’s outage could cost hundreds of millions, a tab that Southern California Edison, San Onofre’s majority owner, is likely to try to pass on to electricity consumers across the state.

It’s a serious incident, one that has attracted fresh attention to a nuclear plant that had just begun to turn around after years of heightened federal scrutiny. San Onofre has a dubious track record.

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