The San Onofre nuclear plant has been shut down for over a year, and may stay that way permanently. The reason for the current closure is a problem with new steam generators. They experienced some kind of rapid degradation which compromised the plant’s safety.
The plant is operated by Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, one of the nation’s largest electric utilities. Edison owns about 78% of the plant, with San Diego Gas and Electric and the City of Riverside owning the minority portion. Since the shutdown began in January of 2012, repair and inspection costs have been $109 million. Replacing the plant’s lost power has cost almost $450 million. If replacements costs for SD G & E are factored in, the total cost is in excess of $700 million.
Edison can file a request to restart the Unit 2 reactor where the damaged tubes were discovered. If authorities deny or delay this request, it may be determined the plant should be shuttered.
Edison has floated the idea of starting Unit 2 at reduced power for a short period to see how well it operates and continue with inspections. The company has a limited amount of time it can continue to absorb costs of an inoperable plant. Currently it is seeking over $138 million from the manufacturer of the generators, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
The plant employs 1,500 people, so closing it forever would obviously be a blow to their economic situations. On the other hand, if they could find jobs in safer situations, it would be an opportunity to do work that is less dangerous. Because the mechanical problem at the plant was unforseen, it isn’t likely many of the employees have a back-up plan in place to continue making their monthly payments on home or cars. A permanent shut down could be quite a hardship. At the same time, it should be noted layoffs unrelated to the shut down have taken place recently to the tune of about 700 workers, so more job losses would not come as a complete surprise.
Construction on San Onofre began in 1964. One of the knocks against it is the older design. Additionally, it is located near the water, so it could be vulnerable to a tsunami and lastly there is some potential for earthquake damage.
When fully operational, the plant generates power for about one million homes. An estimated 90,000 people live within ten miles of it.
Nuclear power in California has been described as a way to power the burgeoning electric vehicle industry in the state. Thankfully, renewable energy development in California outpaces much of the rest of the nation.
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