What a difference a year makes.
In early 2011, America’s nuclear energy community and its proponents were cautiously hoping that America’s troubled nuclear power industry could experience a renaissance, 32 years after Three Mile Island and 25 years after Chernobyl, the U.S. and USSR’s worst nuclear catastrophes.
Given the rising concern about global warming, nuclear advocates never ceased to point out that nuclear power plants (NPPs) produced zero greenhouse gas emissions, unlike fossil fuel fired thermal power plants burning coal or oil.
And then, on 11 March 2011, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami effectively destroyed Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s six reactor Fukushima Daiichi NPP, reminding the world yet again of the unique environmental hazards posed by NPPs.
Now, the aging of America’s NPPs is coming into the public debate, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has laid out conditions that Southern California Edison must meet before it can restart its elderly San Onofre facility.
Because of NRC concerns, the San Onofre facility has been offline for two months in the wake of a tube leak in one of the plant's steam generators that released a small amount of radioactive steam. On 31 January the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down its Unit 3 because sensors detected a leak in the unit's steam generator tubes. Southern California Edison hastily issued a statement noting, "The potential leak poses no imminent danger to the public or plant workers. There has been no release to the atmosphere," adding that SCE has ample reserve power to meet customer needs while Unit 3 is offline.
Two days later however NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said that radioactive gas "could have" escaped the San Onofre facility after it was shut down but added, "It would have been a very, very small, low level, which would not pose a danger to anyone."
Worse for Southern California Edison, subsequent safety checks have uncovered unusual wear on hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is southern California's only nuclear power plant and its two reactors produce roughly 2,200 megawatts of power, generating sufficient electricity to power 1.4 million homes. SONGS is operated by Southern California Edison, whose parent company Edison International holds 78.2 percent ownership of the NPP, with San Diego Gas & Electric Company having a 20 percent share and the City of Riverside Utilities Department retaining the remaining 1.8 percent. The shutdown is costing SCE $600,000 to $1 million a day.
Furthermore, looking towards the summer, the SCE’s optimistic statement that it could cover the electricity losses from SONGS being offline are coming to look a bit roseate, as on 23 March the California Independent System Operator Corp., the grid operator for the majority of California’s electric transmission system, issued a report warning that portions of Orange County could face summer power shortages if both SONGS reactors remain offline.
California Independent System Operator Corp. President and CEO Steve Berberich said, “Safety is the top priority during ongoing inspections and testing of the nuclear power plant. Our focus is contingency planning should SONGS remain offline this summer. Fortunately, there are resource options available to help mitigate reliability risks. We are actively working with San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and others because prudent mitigation planning takes adequate lead time and summer heat is only a couple months away.”
But SONGS encapsulates an emerging problem that few of the operators of America’s 104 NPPs care to discuss – the aging of their facilities and the disposal of their waste. Besides its Unit 2 and 3 operating reactors, SONGS also contains the remains of its Unit 1 reactor, which operated from 1968 to 1992, when it was shut down and dismantled. According to the “NRC SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EDISON COMPANY SAN ONOFRE NUCLEAR GENERATING STATION UNITS 2 AND 3 SITE VISIT. EXECUTIVE, DIRECTOR FOR OPERATIONS 27 OCTOBER 2010” report, marked “official use only – sensitive internal information” and released under a Freedom of Information Act request, the SCE intended to ship the reactor core to a nuclear waste facility in South Carolina and “considered the options of shipping by rail, barge via the Panama Canal, and barge via the Cape Horn, South America. All three plans were met with significant public debate. The licensee now plans to retain the Unit 1 reactor vessel on site until Units 2 and 3 are decommissioned.” So Unit 1 remains onsite at SONGS, encased in concrete and steel.
It is the disposal of both spent nuclear fuel and obsolete NPP equipment that remains the nuclear industry’s biggest procedural headache. While consumers obviously want their uninterrupted electricity supplies, they are much less keen about radioactive gas releases, however slight, much less 600-ton reactor cores littering the landscape, 20 years after it was decommissioned.
Speaking of decommissioning, San Onofre’s Unit 2’s license will expire in February 2022 and Unit 3’s license will expire in November 2022.
California’s total nuclear electricity generation is over 16 percent of the state’s total power generation. If SONGS remains offline, southern Californians could face a long hot summer with their air conditioners facing rolling brownouts or blackouts, hardly adding favorable PR to the media support that NPP operators had hoped was building.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com