The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is seen from the beach along San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.  (David McNew/Getty Images)
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is seen from the beach along San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

by Ed Joyce, KPCC

Southern California Edison Friday said it will close the troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (or SONGS).

The twin-domed nuclear plant, on the seaside border of San Diego and Orange counties, hasn’t produced electricity since January 2012, after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of unusually rapid wear inside hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water in the nearly new generators.

“SONGS has served this region for over 40 years,” said Ted Craver, Chairman and CEO of Edison International, parent company of SCE in a news release, “but we have concluded that the continuing uncertainty about when or if SONGS might return to service was not good for our customers, our investors, or the need to plan for our region’s long-term electricity needs

Last month, SCE’s parent, Edison International, raised the possibility of retiring the plant if it can’t get one reactor running later this year. With questions about whether the plant can restart and who picks up the tab, “there is a practical limit to how much we can absorb of that risk,” Edison Chairman Ted Craver told Wall Street analysts. SCE’s news release said that in connection with the decision, SCE estimates that it will record a charge in the second quarter of between $450 million and $650 million before taxes ($300 million – $425 million after tax), in accordance with accounting requirements.

Pervasive Wear

“This is very good news for the people of Southern California,” said Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth. “We have long said that these reactors are too dangerous to operate and now Edison has agreed. The people of California now have the opportunity to move away from the failed promise of dirty and dangerous nuclear power and replace it with the safe and clean energy provided by the sun and the wind.”

The four steam generators at San Onofre — two per reactor, each with 9,727 alloy tubes — function something like a car radiator, which controls heat in the vehicle’s engine. The generator tubes circulate hot, radioactive water from the reactors, which is used to make steam to turn turbines that produce electricity.

Overall, investigators found wear from friction and vibration in 15,000 places, in varying degrees, in 3,401 tubes inside the four replacement generators.

“Looking ahead,” said Ron Litzinger, SCE’s President, “we think that our decision to retire the units will eliminate uncertainty and facilitate orderly planning for California’s energy future.”

Litzinger noted that the company has worked with the California Independent System Operator, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in planning for Southern California’s energy needs and will continue to do so.

“The company is already well into a summer reliability program and has completed numerous transmission upgrades in addition to those completed last year,” Litzinger said. “Thanks to consumer conservation, energy efficiency programs and a moderate summer, the region was able to get through last summer without electricity shortages. We hope for the same positive result again this year,” Litzinger added, “although generation outages, soaring temperatures or wildfires impacting transmission lines would test the system.” Jobs Lost

SCE said with the retirement of Units 2 and 3, San Onofre anticipates “reducing staff over the next year from approximately 1,500 to approximately 400 employees, subject to applicable regulatory approvals. The majority of such reductions are expected to occur in 2013.”

“This situation is very unfortunate,” said Pete Dietrich, SCE’s Chief Nuclear Officer, noting that “this is an extraordinary team of men and women. We will treat them fairly.” SCE will work to ensure a fair process for this transition, and will work with the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) and the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers (IBEW) on transition plans for the employees they represent.

Michael Peevey, the president of the CPUC, said in a statement that the agency will determine who should pay the costs for the outage at San Onofre Units 2 and 3. Costs for the outage were recently estimated at exceeding $800 million.

“SONGS has been a vital part of the Southern California electric supply system since 1968 when Unit 1 began operation, followed by Units 2 and 3 in 1983-1984,” said Peevey in the statement. “Unit 1 was retired in 1992 and now SCE has announced the retirement of Units 2 and 3. The challenge now facing Southern California’s electric system and economy is what comes next.”

The problems at San Onofre center on steam generators that were installed during a $670 million overhaul in 2009 and 2010. After the plant was shut down, tests found some generator tubes were so badly eroded that they could fail and possibly release radiation, a stunning finding inside the nearly new equipment.

The generators, which resemble massive steel fire hydrants, control heat in the reactors. At San Onofre, each one stands 65 feet high, weighs 1.3 million pounds and has 9,727 U-shaped tubes inside, each 0.75 inches in diameter. Hundreds of the tubes had been taken out of service because of damage or as a preventative step.

Update 10 a.m. Edison International Chairman Ted Craver told reporters Friday that closing the troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station would take decades, cost a lot, leave hundreds unemployed and result in spent nuclear fuel that would be stored “for a very long time” directly on the plant’s current site.

According to Craver, the company has a $2.7 billion decommissioning fund that can be used for the closure of San Onofre. But the money to make up for the loss of the San Onofre plant will come from California ratepayers, company insurance claims, Edison shareholders and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which produced the equipment that led to the problems at San Onofre.

Craver’s comments came in a conference call with reporters following Southern California Edison’s announcement Friday morning that it was closing the plant permanently after concluding that the continuing uncertainty about when or if the plant might return to service was not good for customers or investors.

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