Voters Will Get Chance to Close Down Rancho Seco

Times Staff Writer

By most measures, Rancho Seco has been one of the nation’s least reliable, most troubled nuclear power plants. Problems have closed it down for twice as much time as similar plants and it has delivered but 38% of the power it was designed to generate.

However, trouble is not Rancho Seco’s only distinction. Because the plant, 25 miles southeast of the state capital, is run by the quasi-governmental Sacramento Municipal Utility District, it can be shut down by a vote of its customers. On Tuesday, those customers will have just that opportunity.

Local ratepayers, steamed by recent rate hikes and worried by the plant’s blemished past, have forced a vote on whether to close the plant, which is slowly restarting after a 27-month outage. The utility district has countered with its own ballot measure seeking to give the newly refurbished plant an 18-month trial run before holding a second election to decide its future.


These conflicting proposals are back-to-back on the same ballot, and voters can express a clear choice by approving one and rejecting the other. However, if they paradoxically approve both--essentially voting to close the plant and keep it open at the same time--Rancho Seco’s future may have to be settled in court.

After last month’s decision to abandon the $5.3-billion Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island before it even opened, the Rancho Seco vote is being interpreted by some people as a vote of confidence in the nation’s shaky nuclear power industry.

In the past, voters elsewhere have decided non-binding advisory plebiscites and measures seeking to stop new plants or block nuclear waste dumping, but no electorate has yet voted to simply switch off a licensed and operating nuclear power plant.

The latest attempt, in Maine last fall, lost 59% to 41%; another bid a year earlier in Oregon lost 64% to 36%.

The Sacramento vote is expected to be close. A recent poll indicates voters may be having second thoughts about becoming the first in the nation to close an operating nuclear plant. A Frank N. Magid survey Thursday for KCRA-TV showed weakening support for Measure B, the shutdown initiative; Measure C, the trial-run referendum, was gaining voters’ approval.

National Attention

Anti-nuclear activists around the country look to the Rancho Seco ballot to give momentum to their own efforts to close plants they feel are either unsafe or uneconomical. Massachusetts activists plan a November vote on the future of that state’s two plants, Pilgrim and Yankee.

The political significance of the vote is not lost on the country’s nuclear industry. More than a dozen checks--many worth $10,000 to $20,000 each, a few for much more--have cascaded down upon Rancho Seco supporters, swelling their campaign funds to more than $1 million in a matter of weeks.

Plant opponents have brought in $280,000, most in smaller contributions but with a measure of celebrity aid through Campaign California, a political group affiliated with liberal Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).

This unusual torrent of money has fed a flood of claims and counterclaims, and fair play sometimes is lost in the rush to sway the key undecided voters.

One-Sided View

Supporters of the plant, for example, have attacked fossil-fuel alternatives with a chart showing rising natural gas prices between 1979 and 1982. What the chart avoids is the recent deregulation of gas, which sent prices tumbling. In the last three years, the price of gas bought by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., SMUD’s neighboring utility, has dropped by more than 40%.

On the other side, Ed Smeloff, a member of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s elected board of directors, airs TV ads ridiculing his fellow board members as empty-headed blow-hards scheming for a way to bamboozle overburdened ratepayers into supporting a Rancho Seco they know will not run.

The district itself is barred from campaigning on either side, but has said it has spent $400 million on improving Rancho Seco over the last two years. In fact, half the sum covered routine overhead and only $72 million was spent on “major” improvement projects--many ordered by federal regulators for safety reasons, not necessarily to improve plant performance.

Complicated Issue

Although the choice is simple--close the plant or don’t--the entire issue is not. Rancho Seco ranked among the nation’s most efficient nuclear plants in 1979, but federal regulators and other nuclear utilities agree that pressure to keep Sacramento’s electric rates low led to deferred maintenance, which led to increasingly common equipment failures and errors by inexperienced operators.

Shutdowns have forced rates up 80% since 1985, giving local plant opponents a weapon to fight for its closure. That effort began with the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island--Rancho Seco shares the controversial design--and grew in strength after the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union.

Opponents also were rallied by a December, 1985, incident during which Rancho Seco’s integrated control system failed, letting the reactor get too hot, then too cool, and venting radioactive steam into the air while subjecting the reactor vessel to extraordinary stress.

Series of Events

Just before that incident, in a series of events typical of those that gave the plant its negative reputation, a broken vent in the reactor cooling system dumped 16,000 gallons of radioactive water inside the containment building, in part because the utility had failed to correct problems it knew about in 1981. That leak led to an inspection that found that 223 of 349 earthquake-resistant pipe supports were incorrectly placed and two were simply missing. After those were fixed, the plant tried to restart but briefly shut down once more because of a vacuum loss in a steam converter.

After the 1985 incident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission closed the plant and ordered changes to improve plant safety. At the time, the utility district expected the outage to last six to eight weeks; it actually went for more than two years. In that time, the plant not only had to cope with its own problems, such as electrical fires, but also had to improve to prevent problems found at other, similar power plants.

Even then, a blue-ribbon panel of independent engineers and economists told the district that its plant required still more improvements with no guarantee that it would ever be reliable enough to recover all the added costs.

Manager Comes Over

In February, the district’s general manager, Richard Byrne, agreed with the panel, called further work on the plant an unsound economic risk and suggested the plant and the $400 million spent to improve it be written off.

Byrne warned that if the district reopens Rancho Seco only to discover that it is unreliable for any of several reasons, “the continued operation of SMUD as a public power entity will be threatened.”

Plant opponents concede that economic issues--higher rates and the potential to bankrupt SMUD--are useful in reaching voters who have not been impressed with previous emotional warnings about Chernobylesque nuclear nightmares.

“We can argue safety forever . . . but it’s tough to get people to feel it as deeply as I do,” said Bruce Parks, campaign manager for Sacramentans for Safe Energy, which sponsors the shutdown initiative. “It’s best to focus on the areas where we’re strongest with voters. . . . It (Rancho Seco) is just not worth what it’s costing us.”

More Millions

In addition to the millions already spent trying to repair Rancho Seco, he said, another $150 million in capital improvements are budgeted during the 18-month trial proposed by the district.

“What if we go ahead and spend the money and it still can’t make it?” he said. “It is questionable whether SMUD could survive that kind of situation. Are we willing to bankrupt SMUD in order to roll the dice another 18 months? People just don’t realize what the risks are.”

Rancho Seco supporters counter that the Ranch, as the facility is sometimes called, has been essentially rebuilt. With its improvements and new operators, it is ready to repeat its glory days of the late 1970s, when it was one of the nation’s cheapest sources of electricity.

“I do not think anyone would campaign to keep the old Rancho Seco open,” said Richard Claussen, campaign manager for two pro-Ranch groups, the Rancho Seco Political Action Committee and Citizens for Affordable Energy. “But the fact is, this is the new Rancho Seco.”

Capacity Factor

The supporters, including district director Ann Taylor, confidently predict the “new Rancho Seco” should have a 70% to 80% capacity factor--about twice its historical average and above the industry average of about 65%. Capacity factor is a standard industry measurement of a plant’s reliability--and, by inference, the quality of its construction, maintenance, management and profitability.

Such an accomplishment, a 75% to 100% increase in a plant lifetime capacity factor, would put Rancho Seco among the nation’s best-generating stations.

Others contend that performance also would strain credibility.

In recommending Rancho Seco’s closure, Byrne, a staunch advocate of nuclear energy, noted: “It is unlikely that Rancho Seco can be operated at a capacity factor that exceeds industry averages, especially over the next five years.”

Public Citizen, an organization run by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, added that no plant has yet demonstrated such a turnaround. In one recent study, the group said the best post-shutdown performance, by the Beaver Valley No. 1 unit in Pennsylvania, was a 30% increase. Other plants to come back after long outages have ranged from showing an 18% capacity-factor increase to a 58% decrease.

Campaign Strategy

However, rather than debate the history of Rancho Seco or the whole nuclear industry, plant supporters have adopted a campaign strategy that frames Rancho Seco as the sure thing and all of its alternatives as the ominous unknowns.

“There is no justification to compare what we will do to what has happened in the past,” said one brochure being delivered door-to-door.

Instead, plant supporters dismiss SMUD’s contingency plan to compensate for the loss of Rancho Seco by buying cheap bulk power from other utilities. These campaigners point to Middle East instability and scoff at bulk-power contracts tied to the price of “foreign” natural gas. (Actually, an industry spokesman said, only a fraction of the gas used for electricity is imported, and most of that comes from Canada.)

Rancho Seco, meanwhile, is portrayed by its supporters as “efficient” and “safe” and they argue in campaign brochures that “it’s only common sense to test the plant.”

‘Let’s Run It .. ‘

“It is up and running now,” Claussen said, referring to the plant’s slow climb back to full power. It is now hovering at about 40% of capacity while a systems check is finished. “We’ve already spent the money (improving it) . . . let’s see what it can do. Let’s run it, then make a more rational decision.”

In addition to apparently swaying voters, this theme has won the support--financial support--of the nuclear industry. Duke Power Co., a North Carolina utility interested in running the plant for a multimillion-dollar fee, is the largest single contributor at $150,000.

Big money also has come from two companies whose reputations may be smudged if voters close the plant--$75,000 from Babcock & Wilcox, the Virginia outfit that designed its nuclear steam system, and $50,000 from Bechtel Western Power Co., which designed and built the rest of the plant.

Duke Power’s donation has been the most controversial, prompting Smeloff to accuse his own district of misleading voters about their ballot options.