Rancho Seco Nuclear Plant Shutdown Begins : But Closure by Voters, First of Its Kind, Is Not Expected to Have Much Effect on Other Facilities

Times Staff Writer

Rancho Seco slipped into “hot shutdown” Wednesday at 10:40 a.m., becoming the first operating nuclear power plant closed by popular vote, but the event was discounted as a unique Sacramento phenomenon with little effect on the rest of the nuclear industry or the anti-nuclear movement.

Analysts on both sides of the issue acknowledged the election as a setback for the image of nuclear energy. But they added that the circumstances behind the vote--a history of breakdowns, public ownership and widely disliked and mistrusted management--are unlikely to be repeated elsewhere.

“No one should think the vote to close Rancho Seco automatically means other nuclear power plants can be closed by citizens’ initiatives,” said Bob Mulholland of Campaign California, a Santa Monica-based political group that played a key role in defeating Rancho Seco. “But it will get everyone’s attention.”


Carl Goldstein of the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, a Washington-based nuclear industry lobbying group, called the vote “a referendum on SMUD (the Sacramento Municipal Utility District), not nuclear power.”

“It’s never good news when something like this happens,” he added, “but it’s not the beginning of the end of anything.”

Some groups broke from the consensus--Public Citizen, a consumerist group affiliated with Ralph Nader, called the election “the beginning of the end for nuclear power”--but the first successful anti-nuclear ballot measure in 15 attempts was not widely expected to spark a series of similar grass-roots campaigns.

What many think it may do--and there already was some confirming evidence Wednesday--is revive practically moribund anti-nuclear campaigns that have labored unsuccessfully for at least the last 10 years to close other operating power plants or prevent new ones from firing up.

One example is the Maryland Safe Energy Coalition, which has fruitlessly battled against the troubled but recently rebuilt Peachbottom nuclear facility run by Philadelphia Electric Co. in southeastern Pennsylvania. That multi-unit facility has been fined for, among other things, having operators who slept on the job.

“We had used the safety issue, concentrating on design problems, operating problems, maintenance problems,” said Patricia Birnie of Columbia, Md. “But now it is clear the economic angle is much more effective. They concentrated on the economics in Sacramento, and they won.”


Voters Were Annoyed

One of the reasons for the outcome of the Rancho Seco election was the plant’s historically poor performance--a problem that irritated voters because it cost the district hundreds of millions of dollars over the last five years.

However, several factors--the need to know whether to sign contracts for more nuclear fuel or replacement power--forced SMUD to seek Wednesday’s vote of confidence before the district believed it had an adequate opportunity to prove Rancho Seco’s new reliability.

As a result, anti-nuclear activists were able to deflect the low cost of nuclear energy in general by noting the unreliability of this particular nuclear plant.

“I kept this election focused on the cost-effectiveness of Rancho Seco. That’s why we won,” said Mulholland, whose group used the social and political connections of its founder, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), to fund a large share of the anti-Rancho campaign.

“There are obviously some well-running nuclear plants in America,” he said. “There are, however, a number of plants that run poorly. Those plants will now be held to a new standard-- are they cost-effective?”

However, even poorly run plants do not have the burden of being wholly owned by municipal power companies, which are much more sensitive to transient politics because they are quasi-governmental agencies with popularly elected boards of directors.


Private Ownership

Goldstein said all other U.S. nuclear plants are at least partly operated by private, investor-owned utilities. To close those plants by popular vote would almost certainly require that the government first buy the plant from its private owners--a multibillion-dollar proposition that no state or local government could afford.

“This was unique because it was the first time that there was a clear referendum on a plant,” said Stuart Wilson, assistant executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Assn. “It’s the first time, for a vote of this kind, that there was no legal dispute in the court over the people’s right to speak on a plant.”

Rancho Seco also was unique, many analysts noted, because its popularly elected board of directors was so unpopular. Frequent public bickering among its members, particularly over repairs at Rancho Seco, have made the board a common target of scorn.

It was particularly resented by SMUD employees, a rift noted by outside industry experts from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. INPO, as the industry-sponsored watchdog group is known, said last April that a successful reconstruction of Rancho Seco was unlikely to solve the district’s problems because of conflicts on the board, including the frequent turnover of top management working directly with the board.

Such problems may continue as Rancho Seco is slowly switched off, or decommissioned. Some SMUD employees are publicly critical of the board’s most frequent critic of nuclear power, Ed Smeloff, who already has proposed trying to find another way to fuel the non-nuclear generating equipment at Rancho Seco.

Smeloff has suggested using natural gas to create steam for the electrical generators. Such a conversion for an operating nuclear power plant is unprecedented, although one plant in Michigan was converted from nuclear to gas before its first load of uranium was installed. An active Colorado plant is said to be under study for such a conversion as well.


Such a plan would pose special problems in Sacramento, however, because the Sacramento Valley suffers a serious air pollution problem. Adding a plant that burns fossil fuel and belches smoke would require the district to pay millions to add smog control equipment to factories in the area. Smeloff said he believes the district has several options in this area.

For now, however, the focus is on pulling the plug on Rancho Seco.

Hot shutdown--in which the plant does not generate electricity but continues to generate heat from its nuclear pile--will last 72 hours, a plant spokeswoman said.

When the interior temperature dips below 200 degrees Fahrenheit, it will be in cold shutdown and the nuclear chain reaction will stop. It will remain in this mode for several months while radiation levels drop.

Once safe enough, the nuclear fuel will be removed from the reactor and stored on site until a federal nuclear repository opens, probably not before 2008. Then the coolant water will be drained and treated to eliminate radioactivity.

Finally, the plant will be sealed up according to regulations issued last year by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It then will sit idle--under the constant supervision of nuclear caretakers--until part of the facility is reused with natural gas or until radiation levels have dropped low enough to let wrecking crews cut the plant in pieces and haul it away to the nuclear repository.


Here are the general steps for shutting down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant as explained by a member of its board of directors:


1. “Hot shutdown,” halting electricity production but retaining critical mass in the reactor, thus still creating heat.

2. “Cold shutdown,” inserting control rods into the reactor to stop the chain reaction and critical mass, starting the process of reducing temperatures and pressures inside the plant.

3. After several months, removal of nuclear fuel in spent and partially spent form, to be stored at Rancho Seco pending permanent disposal elsewhere years later.

4. Drain fluids, mostly the water used in the heat-transfer systems, after treating to remove radioactivity.

5. De-energize, or unplug, some electrical systems not needed when plant is mothballed, such as large cranes not needed by an idled plant.

6. Seal the containment building housing the reactor according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, then lock up the nuclear side of the plant and monitor the remaining plant systems to prevent radioactive release. Non-nuclear, steam-driven turbines and generators could be modified and used later, fired by a natural gas energy source.


Times staff writer George White contributed to this article.