San Onofre Nuclear Closure Will Take Decades, Cost Billions

san onofre

Southern California Edison’s website boasts that the triple-reactor San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is the region’s “largest and most reliable source of energy.” Three hundred and fifty billion kilowatt hours of energy generated since 1968 that have been “virtually free” of pollutants. And yet utility officials announced today that the three reactors that went online in 1968, 1983, and 1984 are being closed permanently.

ted craver

“SONGS has served this region for over 40 years,” Edison International CEO Ted Craver said in a prepared statement, “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.”

The complex has been idle since January, 2012, when a radiation leak was detected in one of the steam generators. That led to the discovery of unusually rapid wear within thousands of tubes carrying radioactive water to and from the reactor core – eight of which later failed pressure tests. In April, an anonymous whistleblower identified by one local TV channel as a safety engineer at San Onofre with a quarter-century of experience with nuclear energy, declared that there was something “grossly wrong” with the plant that placed it at risk of “full or partial meltdown.”

An independent analysis in September of 2012 sought to put the situation in laymen’s terms, stating in the report “Far Outside the Norm”: “San Onofre Unit 2 and Unit 3 are both very ill nuclear plants. Unit 3’s fever is slightly higher, but both are in serious trouble.”

San Onofre safety
Worth noting: The South Texas Project feeding San Antonio’s power needs isn’t exactly playing in the shallow end of the safety pool.

The tube fiasco proved to be the final straw in the history of the troubled plant that sits mid-point between Los Angeles and San Diego and close to an active fault that residents had started taking a second (or third) look at after the devastating meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan.

“We have long said that these reactors are too dangerous to operate and now Edison has agreed,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, in a prepared statement. “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 extended outage at San Onofre has already cost the utility well over $400 million, according to the L.A. Times. The permanent closure is expected to take decades. Southern California Public Radio reports that while the utility has a $2.7 billion decommissioning fund set aside, “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.”

“Spent nuclear fuel [from the San Onofre nuclear plant] will be stored on the site for a very long time,” said Craver.

san onofre earthquake

The closure of San Onofre leaves 100 nuclear plants operating in the U.S. It is by no means the only U.S. nuclear facility having trouble, either, as the folks at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service will tell you.

Though still trumpeted as an important low-carbon energy source, one of the chief problems with nuclear is just what boosters so frequently boost about: its scale. While nukes do produce huge amounts of baseload energy (when they are operational), the deadly wastes live virtually forever; the money involved in building and demolishing them is jaw-dropping; and the meltdowns, while infrequent, have the potential to kill both now and for lifetimes to come.

I did a bit of writing about the big risks involved in nuclear power years back when San Antonio was hot in the game for expanding the two-reactor South Texas Project. Radioactive waste issues and Osama’s documented interest in all things nuclear figured highly in my analysis.

And while none other than Bill Gates rode to the rescue of nuclear power recently, a report prepared for Friends of the Earth says it best: “Nuclear power is one of the least effective and most expensive ways in which to tackle climate change.”

Climate demands fast changes. Nuclear has proven to be anything but swift. Most likely, Onofre will continue providing lessons for years to come as local, state, and federal agencies wrestle over what to do with the spent nuclear fuel piled up onsite. You know, the stuff left over from that energy “virtually free” of pollution. Already calls for investigations have begun.