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Nuclear Power Struggle

San Onofre's big promises and big failure


Published:

(page 3 of 5)

steam generator being transported

A large steam generator is slowly transported along the west side of I-5, north of the Las Pulgas exit. It’s on its way to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station


By the Numbers

1.4

Millions of homes the San Onofre nuclear power plant is capable of powering

20

Percent of its power that SDG&E gets from the plant

2,600

Number of workers employed at the plant

62

Complaints substantiated by the federal watchdog agency about San Onofre

$671

Millions of dollars it cost to replace four steam generators

San Onofre’s safety problems began drawing attention in 2007. A fire prevention specialist responsible for hourly patrols around the plant had deliberately falsified inspection records for years. In 2008, a safety battery was discovered to have been disconnected for four years.

Concerns began mounting. Whistleblowers alleged they’d been fired for raising safety questions. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission added an extra on-site inspector. The NRC flagged the plant for its problems. San Onofre stayed under the dubious federal warning for four years. It was a serious threat to the plant: Improve, or else. Federal regulators have shut down at least one nuclear plant that didn’t heed their order.

Edison committed to doing better. It hired a new overseer for the plant and shook up its management. Change was evident. No more so than earlier this year, when the NRC at last lifted the flags on the plant.

But that was March.

And San Onofre was shut down when it happened.

Peter Dietrich, Edison’s top nuclear official, sounded impressed.

It was February 18, 2011, and Edison had just recently completed a monumental project, replacing San Onofre’s four steam generators, the largest components of the nuclear plant. The project was a costly investment in San Onofre’s future. From start to finish, it had taken 10 years and cost $671 million.

When Edison flipped the switch to turn the plant back on at 2:56 a.m. on that February day, Dietrich called it “a moment of pride” for San Onofre’s 2,600 workers. They had successfully pulled off a major upgrade that could keep the plant running for decades to come. The project would save customers $1 billion over 10 years, Dietrich promised.

The effort wasn’t routine, and it was fraught with risk. The generators had to be manufactured in Kobe, Japan, shipped across the Pacific, barged to San Onofre and slowly, ever so slowly, moved inside wide holes carefully cut in the nuclear plant’s concrete containment domes.

Opening containment domes had proven disastrous elsewhere. A similar project in 2009 at a nuclear plant north of Tampa, Fla., cracked a concrete dome. Repairs will keep that facility offline until 2014.

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