SONGS' future faces fierce debate


Nuclear energy has always been controversial. Proponents cite a relatively clean, cheap and efficient power source. Opponents lambaste its radioactive waste, risk of meltdowns and potential for hazardous health effects. The 2011 Japanese tsunami and Fukushima disaster has placed renewed scrutiny on nuclear generation --especially coastal sites. Everyone wants to put safety first, but any decision to shut down electricity generation has wide-ranging implications for grid reliability.

California's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS)

Front and center in the debate is California's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). It's located along the state's southern coast, roughly between Los Angeles and San Diego -- prime earthquake and tsunami territory. Any nuclear power facilities in this environment must be safe and prepared for a natural disaster of this magnitude.

This is one reason the SONGS facility is facing a tough battle following the discovery of a small radiation leak in early 2012. SONGS Units 2 and 3 have been shut down since January 2012, after Southern California Edison (SCE) discovered problems with steam generator tubes.

Bringing the plant back online is a battle between utilities, regulators and citizens. And some stakeholders undoubtedly see it as an opportunity to get rid of nuclear power in Southern California.

The SONGS facility is jointly owned by three utilities, with SCE holding a majority share of 78 percent. San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) owns 20 percent, and the City of Riverside Utilities Department owns 1.8 percent.

The future of SONGS

With a total generation capacity of 2,200 MW, enough to generate power for 1.4 million homes, the strain on the grid is being felt across the region. Not to mention the fact that electricity customers are still paying for non-operational generation.

As a result, SCE petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission in late 2012 to restart the generator on a limited basis. The October proposal would activate Unit 2 for a five-month pilot at 70 percent capacity.

It's possible that California may be forced to spend another hot summer without San Onofre's generation.

SCE President Ron Litzinger said at the time that, "Safety is our top priority," and that the utility had conducted over 170,000 inspections to help understand the problem and prevent future issues.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced in mid-January the formation of a dedicated panel to investigate the restructuring plan. It promised to stake "a unified and consistent position in a clear and predictable manner" throughout the review process.  

But the desire to restart SONGS is far from unanimous.

The DAB Safety Team is one group lobbying hard to keep SONGS offline and, as its mission states, "To prevent a Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster like Fukushima, from happening in the USA."

An amalgam of leaders, engineers and citizens from Orange and San Diego counties, the coalition has numerous concerns and has published myriad allegations against SCE regarding what the group sees as a mishandling of the SONGS situation.  

In a recent media statement, DAB alleged a "Dangerous Safety Cover Up" at SONGS, adding that "the evidence clearly shows that Edison has been operating outside the design basis of its Final Safety Analysis."  DAB has released a number of additional documents pointing to what it sees as proof of engineering and technical failures at SONGS that justify its continued closure.

Legislators, regulators take action

Legislators and energy regulators are also getting in on the act, aiming to ensure SONGS is dealt with in a way that is safe and economical.

The California Public Utilities Commission announced two public hearings later this month to investigate rate impacts of the SONGS closure. It's the initial step in an investigation that could stretch years. State Attorney General Kamala Harris has joined the investigation, but has not taken a position for or against SCE and SONGS.

California Senator Barbara Boxer on Friday said the shutdown could have been avoided and that SCE chose to ignore a report by manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) that identified problems with the generator tubes. She and Representative Ed Markey made the argument in a February 8 letter to the NRC.

"The Report indicates that Southern California Edison and MHI were aware of serious problems with the design of San Onofre nuclear power plant's replacement steam generators before they were installed. Further, the Report asserts that SCE and MHI rejected enhanced safety modifications and avoided triggering a more rigorous license amendment and safety review process," the letter said.

Boxer and Markey also urged the NRC to investigate the matter, which they believe contributed to the closure of SONGS Units 2 and 3.

Southern California Edison shot back at Boxer and Markey's allegations in a February rebuttal.

"SCE would never, and did not, install steam generators that it believed would not perform safely," the utility wrote. "SCE's design specifications followed industry standards for compliance with NRC processes. In fact, SCE submitted two license amendments during the replacement steam generator review process, which the NRC approved."

It remains unclear exactly how the SONGS issue will be resolved. It's possible that California may be forced to spend another hot summer without San Onofre's generation, and reliability planning and mitigation efforts are already underway.

"It's no secret that we are concerned about reliability this summer without san Onofre online, and that's from the standpoint not only of the missing supply but also from the standpoint of missing voltage support," Stephanie McCorkle, director of communications for the California ISO, told FierceEnergy.

Last summer, California was able to rely on generation from Huntington Beach nuclear generators. But those units have since been retired, creating the need for new alternatives. CAISO is pressing for improved transmission and for the installation of synchronous condensers at Huntington Beach. It plans to announce further detailed reliability plans at its March board meeting.