Today the California utility company Southern California Edison (SCE) made the decision to permanently retire the two nuclear reactors at its San Onofre Generating Station, or SONGS, located on the Pacific coast mid-way between Los Angeles and San Diego. SCE’s 40+ year old nuclear plant had not produced electricity since January 2012, when SONGS suffered a steam generator tube leak in Unit 3 that resulted in the release of radioactive material into the environment. At that time excessive wear in the steam generating tubing of Unit 2 was also discovered, resulting in a decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to issue a Confirmatory Action Letter to SCE in March directing the utility to keep the reactors shut down pending an investigation of the rapid steam generator tube degradation in both units. The SONGS reactors are of a design called Pressurized Water Reactors, and the steam generators at issue are an integral part of the nuclear reactor and must function properly to safeguard against a severe nuclear accident. The steam generators at San Onofre had been replaced by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for SCE in 2009 and 2010.
In October 2012 SCE submitted a submitted a restart plan to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and NRDC’s concerns at the time were that the restart plan did not involve public participation and sufficient transparency and review of the technical issues on the steam generator tube wear and resultant safety risks. As this situation unfolded last year, Friends of the Earth (FOE) demanded a public license amendment proceeding to weigh restart of either SONGS unit with impaired primary cooling, and NRDC filed a separate amicus brief in support of FOE in January 2013.
In May of 2013 the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that the agency's Confirmatory Action Letter process last year constitutes a de facto license amendment proceeding that is subject to a hearing opportunity under Section 189 (a) of the Atomic Energy Act. The Board further stated that “the parties in interest should be afforded a meaningful opportunity to request a hearing before the NRC Staff takes final action that could result in authorizing SCE to operate in a manner that is beyond the ambit of its existing license."
As SCE stated in its June 7, 2013 press release: “A recent ruling by an adjudicatory arm of the NRC, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), creates further uncertainty regarding when a final decision might be made on restarting Unit 2. Additional administrative processes and appeals could result in delay of more than a year.” The decision by SCE to permanently retire both Unit 2 and Unit 3 followed within less than a month of the ASLB ruling, and the administrative court’s ruling was a critical step in promoting transparency in nuclear safety matters.
The decision to permanently retire SONGS follows on the heels of Dominion’s decision this May to retired the reactor at Kewaunee Power Station in Wisconsin, and Duke-Progress’s retirement of the Crystal River Nuclear Plant in Florida this past February, rather than rebuild its cracked containment. NRDC welcomes the announcement of SCE to retire the two troubled nuclear reactors at San Onofre, a decision that represents an opportunity to move forward with a resource portfolio dominated by energy efficiency, renewable energy and high efficiency natural gas applications, and away from an outmoded technology that is no longer economic and carries the risk of a severe radiation accident. NRDC expects that there will be additional older nuclear plants that will be retired in the coming years, as they are proving uneconomic to modernize in the face of low natural gas prices, advances in wind and solar, and low energy demand growth.
And as NRDC's Devra Wang wrote recently in her blog, it turns out that California’s electric system is very likely to be reliable this summer without SONGS, because of advances in energy efficiency, renewables and enough power elsewhere in the grid.