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Nuclear Power Struggle

San Onofre's big promises and big failure


(page 5 of 5)

The generators themselves are covered under a $137 million warranty from Mitsubishi. But that wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of starting over on a $671 million project.

No matter what happens, one thing is clear: The steam generator replacement at San Onofre, once so highly praised by Edison officials, has turned out to be a disaster.

Back in 2004, San Onofre’s existing steam generators were getting old. And though they were supposed to last the life of the plant, Edison claimed they wouldn’t and proposed a major effort to replace them. New generators would boost San Onofre’s reliability. They’d also boost returns for Edison’s shareholders.

As with any big-ticket utility company project, California electricity customers were asked to pay the bill. This turned into a fight at the California Public Utilities Commission. Ratepayer advocates and even San Diego Gas & Electric, which owns 20 percent of the plant, argued that replacement generators weren’t needed yet.

“If you don’t have a safety culture that knows how to follow directions specifically and write directions specifically for these sorts of projects, you’re just asking for problems.”

An attorney for SDG&E said in regulatory filings that Edison “grossly exaggerated” the likelihood the old generators couldn’t last longer and used pessimistic, hyperbolic projections SDG&E called a “scare tactic.” SDG&E attorney James Walsh wrote in a brief that two of the four generators would likely run until 2017, if not longer. The other two could run until at least 2011, Walsh said.

The thin tubes now so problematic in the new generators weren’t wearing out as fast as expected in the old ones. Edison, in its replacement push, hired an expert to forecast the likelihood of the tubes degrading. When the forecast suggested they could last longer, Edison subjectively tweaked the findings, based on what it said was industry experience.

In its final decision, the utilities commission noted that Edison’s tweak was unusual, saying the company could’ve sought federal approval to extend the generators’ lives, but didn’t.

Still, the commission approved the project. Regardless of exactly when they started up, the commission said new generators were needed to keep San Onofre running until its license expired in 2022.

Project opponents made arguments that today seem prescient. SDG&E warned that Edison’s forecasts for project costs at San Onofre were historically unreliable. And because roughly 15 percent of the United States’ nuclear plants had sustained year-long outages in the last 20 years, The Utility Reform Network asked state regulators to consider whether the generator replacement project would be cost-effective if such an outage occurred at San Onofre. (It wouldn’t be, said Freedman, the utility watchdog attorney.) The group also sought a cap on future operating costs at the plant.

A preliminary decision from the Public Utilities Commission included that cap. The final approval didn’t.

“They said we were being paranoid,” Freedman said. “But sometimes being paranoid means you’re right.”

Another nuclear watchdog, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, proposed that the generator project be delayed until San Onofre cleaned up its record with federal regulators. That, too, was rebuffed.

“If you don’t have a safety culture that knows how to follow directions specifically and write directions specifically for these sorts of projects,” said Rochelle Becker, the alliance’s executive director, “you’re just asking for problems.”

Rob Davis reports on the media for
voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit news
organization that partners with
San Diego Magazine.

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