California's Nuclear Freeze May Lead to Brownouts During Summer Heat

SONG's Has been Shut Down Since January

Ken Silverstein | Apr 11, 2012


The 7.5 million people living near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California just received some important visitors: Nuclear Regulatory Chairman Gregory Jaczko came by with other important dignitaries to discuss with them the small radiation leaks at the facility there.

The leaks are not a danger to the public, say NRC officials, who are still saying that they won’t authorize the re-opening of the units until the agency and the utility can pinpoint the cause. The reactors in question have operated safely for 25 years, but Southern California Edison has recently replaced some steam generators that have deteriorating tubes. Given Japan’s crisis, officials want to be doubly sure everything is in working order.

“Although the leak did not pose a threat to plant workers or the surrounding communities, and was less than the NRC requirement for shutdown, plant officials shut down the plant anyway,” says Eliot Brenner, director of public affairs for the NRC, in his blog.

Specifically, the nuclear station that is known as SONGS, is located between Los Angeles and San Diego and is one of two nuclear facilities in California. Some wear and tear was found on SONG’s Unit 2 in January and it was closed for repair as a result. Shortly after, more pronounced deterioration was found on Unit 3, which then suffered a small radiation leak.

SONGs has functioned safely and efficiently. As part of the routine maintenance, Southern California Edison has replaced parts. The utility spent about $680 million on the steam generators -- costs that are passed through to its customers. Edison says that the tubes inside of the generators are vibrating and creating subsequent friction, leading to leaks. That has to be fixed.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who represents the district, said that safety is of paramount importance. He expressed hope that the two units would be ready by summer. That’s when the demand for energy would escalate and without SONGs, the threat of rolling blackouts would be pervasive.

“There’s a balancing act,” says Issa, to reporters. “We want to make sure we have 100 percent safety, but we also want to make sure the ratepayers are getting what they are paying for.”

Absolute Guarantee

Citizen groups have said that without an absolute guarantee that the plants are safe, they should not re-open. They are accusing Southern California Edison of being more concerned about stemming their lost revenues than with safety.

As for the NRC, Jaczko says that the cause of the vibration and friction must be  understood and stopped. The utility then needs to provide a remediation plan. Jaczko defended Southern California Edison, saying that it has always acted above board and with the best interest of its customers in mind.

Since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, the commission has been in high gear. It has ordered U.S. plants to re-examine their flood and seismic risks, and then to develop secondary plans should the auxiliary power systems fail to perform. That was the key problem with respect to events in Japan in March 2011. To that end, the NRC has ordered plants here to have state-of-the art monitoring devices at the spent fuel pools. That’s where the radioactive fuel rods are cooled before they are later stored in above-ground concrete encased steel barriers.

The extra precaution is necessary in today’s times. And so are some additional questions, such as whether the global community ought to consider smaller nuclear reactors. Such “right-sized” units have some critical advantages over their larger counterparts in that they would avoid any Japan-like crisis.

Those 45-100 megawatt electric modules are transported by train to sites where they are then assembled and fueled. If more electric generation is required, the modules can be laid side-by-side. If one of them goes down, it can be maintained and the whole system does not have to be shut down. Ditto if one needs to be refueled. Their size gives them some cost advantages, as well as fewer regulatory hoops to jump through.

“I’d like to rebuild the United States first and then sell overseas,” says Christopher Mowry, president of Babcock & Wilcox modular nuclear division, in an earlier talk with this writer. The goal, he adds, is keep the prices on par with competing generators at about $2 billion. 

Despite the headwinds, the nuclear industry here is determined. It’s already on route to build some larger reactors and soon after, it will pursue the smaller ones. Expansion will come, albeit it will occur more slowly than had been anticipated.

EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

Related Topics


New England Nuclear Power Issues

Ken, interesting discussion on nuclear issues in California. New England has a few problems with nuclear power. 

In a blog post of December 4, 2011, I wrote, “Thirty percent of New England’s electricity generation is from nuclear plants (ISO Regional System Plan 2011). Three out of five of these five plants are past their design life time. All use mostly imported uranium, and exercise questionable safety by storing greater numbers of densely packed, spent fuel rods at the plants. Nuclear power plants have a finite lifetime. Replacing a decommissioned plant with another will be extremely expensive and time consuming. For example, an AP1000 nuclear power plant (Generation III+) built by Westinghouse will cost between $5B to $7B per reactor and be operational 60 months from receipt of order. To read more, please click on 

Dr. Jeffrey Everson


Design changes caused San Onofre Steam Generator failure & leaks

For more details on why design changes in the replacement steam generators at San Onofre are the most likely cause of premature wear and rupture of tubes, see

No rolling blackouts with San Onofre offline


California's energy grid operator states they have numerous contingency plans to avoid blackouts this summer with San Onofre shut down. And California Public Utility Commission data shows we have plenty of excess power in California without the California nuclear plants. So why are we living with the risk of becoming Fukushima USA? So Edison can make millions of dollars while we take all the risks. 

According to NRC data, San Onofre has the worst safety record of all US nuclear power plants, so it was no surprise to see problems with these steam generators.  And employees are punished for reporting safety problems. In fact, San Onofre has the highest rate of employee retaliation of all nuclear plants in the country. 

A new study from nuclear expert, Arnie Gundersen, shows Edison made major design changes to the replacement steam generators. These changes are the likely cause of the steam generator failures. 

We were lucky the tube rupture wasn't worse. Multiple tube ruptures can result in a nuclear meltdown. We cannot trust Edison to protect people over profits.  They changed the steam generator design in order to increase their profits.  The NRC approved these defective steam generators last time. Do you trust Edison or the NRC to do it right next time?  Get the facts at

Nuclear plants in "ring of fire" and subject to tsunamis

Nuclear plants in high earthequake zones and 

close enough to an ocean to be subject to tsunamis 

should be closed.  They are unsafe even though 

their safety and other systems are operating safely. 

Brownouts Unlikely

Last time I checked thenCalifornia ISO's summer assessment for 2012, Southern California had about a 22% surplus of supply over the expected peak demand...before considering the complete loss of the San Onofre plant.  If San Onofre is lost, reserves for this summer would drop to around 14%, which is on the low side but still likely to be adequate.

Perhaps there's cause for concern, but there's no cause for alarm unless other major power plants suffer outages or a major gas pipeline becomes unavailable or...  There are ways to mitigate the risksmofminadequate supply, but guarantees are quite expensive.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Headline doesn't quite match topic

There are 12 paragraphs on the safety issues at the nuclear plant and two paragraphs about a possibility of brownouts.  That makes your choice of headlines rather odd to me. Couldn't you have chosen the headline "Safety concerns delay restarting of nuclear plant" subtitle "May cause brownouts in Summer", to provide a more accurate summary of what the article is about? 

Looking for a Copy Editor

We are, indeed, in the market for one who would not just perfect what you guys see each day but also write headlines. Seriously, you may be right about the headline. From what I've learned about them -- a world where everything is tied 'search engine optimization' -- is that you need to get the main subject matter in the headline so that it can be found in a Google search. So, "Nuclear Energy" is the first thing you need in there. And "safety concerns" would be a good two words to have in there as well, given, as you point out, that is the main topic here. Another point that I've learned the hard way -- sorry to be long-winded but the topic interest me -- is that the web URL and the headline are pretty much the same. So, if you change the headline midstream, it will basically delete the first version (the first headline) of the story. I know: I've asked that headlines be changed if they do not reflect the story or they are inaccurate. Ok, enuf of all that. Thanks for writing this note. Ken

Absolute guarantee

I think consumer groups use "absolute guarantee" as a means to oppose any form of nuclear power.

California Nuclear Freeze may lead to summer blackouts

So the "Citizen groups have said that without an absolute guarantee that the plants are safe, they should not re-open." I assume that no one in these groups ever crosses the street because there is no absolute guarantee that they won't be hit by a car. And living in California is there an absolute guarantee that they won't be hurt in an earthquake? Is there  such a guarantee that a blade won't come off a windmill and hurt someone, or that no condors will be killed by flying into a windmill?

It is ridiculous statements like this that make a mockery of citizen group concerns and lead to the inability of any utility to provide reliable power. I didn't realize that in life there are any "absolute guarantees" except perhaps the guarantee that ignorant citizens will oppose anything and everything that has to do with technology.