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San Onofre Proposal Generates Renewed Debate : Utilities: A recommendation to close the always controversial nuclear power plant in 1998 has advocates and opponents focusing on economic issues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Controversy has surrounded the San Onofre nuclear power plant since that afternoon in 1968 when former Rep. Chet Holifield pulled the ceremonial first switch, sparking the 395-megawatt Unit 1 reactor.

Holifield was joined by Glenn T. Seaborg of the Atomic Energy Commission at the opening of what was then the world’s largest nuclear energy producer.

“We are substantially further along in the peaceful use of the atom than any other country,” Seaborg told the luncheon gathering at the 83-acre Camp Pendleton site leased from the Marine Corps.

Fifteen years later, two other reactor units were built on the site, each rated to supply 1,127 megawatts of electricity.

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But the 26-year history of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station--which supplies 12% of the power used by customers of Southern California Edison, the principal owner--has not been so peaceful. Anti-nuclear groups concerned about radiation, ocean pollution and the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe have rallied against the plant since the 1960s.

This year, opponents of the plant found a powerful ally in the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, a department of the Public Utilities Commission, that has put the future of the entire plant at stake.

Ratepayer advocates contended at a proceeding last April that the plant’s operating costs are far too high and that SCE customers could save as much as $1 billion if the plant closed in 1998, 15 years ahead of schedule. The PUC is not expected to act on the recommendation until December or early next year, but debate over the San Onofre issue has again been stoked.

Radioactive waste and safety issues aside, opponents argue, the nuclear energy industry is dead in this country because cheaper sources of power--natural gas, solar, wind--are available.

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“Nuclear power is not cost-effective,” said Marion Pack, spokeswoman for the Santa Ana-based Alliance for Survival, which opposes nuclear power. “Whether San Onofre is shut in 1998 or 2013, we are still going to have people who need to be retrained and moved into new employment. Let’s get on with it.”

Proponents, who include union representatives of the plant’s workers, dispute the DRA’s figures and point out San Onofre’s importance to the Southern California economy and that nuclear power does not pollute the air.

“San Onofre is absolutely vital to our community,” said David N. Lund, San Clemente’s director of economic development. “To just decide to shut a plant down that employs nearly 3,000 people, with a $1.2-billion impact on the region, has to be done very, very carefully.”

What’s more, the pressure to close the plant comes at a time when it has never operated more smoothly, say officials of Southern California Edison, which owns 75% of the plant. San Diego Gas & Electric owns another 20%, with utilities in Anaheim and Riverside owning about 5%.

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The original reactor was closed in November, 1992, after similar rounds of PUC hearings, but Units 2 and 3 are now operating at more than 80% of capacity, considered a mark of superior performance in the industry, said Joe Wambold, manager of business and finance for the nuclear department of SCE.

“This may be a banner year for production,” said Wambold, a Laguna Niguel resident. “Unit 2 has been on line for more than 370 days of continual service of full power. We are very proud of our record.”

Wambold said SCE has filed a lengthy rebuttal to the DRA recommendation.

“Our fundamental position is that we have demonstrated that this plant is the lowest-cost alternative to our customers,” Wambold said. “Whether from the viewpoint of economics, safety, impacts on the environment or waste disposal, the facts speak very well for the continued operation of these plants.”

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Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the debate over nuclear power centered on issues of safety and security. Today the focus has shifted to questions of radioactive waste storage and economics.

“I think if you asked the average citizen what their greatest concern is when it comes to nuclear power, they’d still say safety,” said Chris Nichols, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Safe Energy Communication Council, a nuclear watchdog agency. “But people are looking at their pocketbook these days on all issues.”

DRA officials estimate that it costs as much as $600 million a year to operate Units 2 and 3 at San Onofre. Electrical rates are particularly high in California primarily because of the nuclear investments that local utilities have made, they say.

“Wall Street has definitely rejected nuclear power,” Nichols said. “You can’t get financing, and when you can’t get financing, that’s a resounding statement.”

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Nuclear power advocates agree that no new nuclear plants are being built in the United States but note that they are moving forward elsewhere in the world, including in Japan, Germany and Korea. To abandon nuclear power, particularly for such an exhaustible commodity as natural gas, would be shortsighted, they argue.

“The strength of our electrical system is the diversity of our fuel supply,” said Marvin Fertel, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington. “That was proven last January in the East during that bad cold wave. The coal piles froze, the oil tankers couldn’t get to shore because of frozen ports, and natural gas was needed for other industrial and residential uses. But nuclear power stayed on line.”

Only a few years ago natural gas was considered too expensive to burn for electricity, but “now it’s a panacea,” Fertel said.

“We really shouldn’t rely on any one particular source for electricity,” he said. “We all take electricity for granted, but it’s really important to our quality of life.”

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The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is scheduled to close in 2013, when its license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expires.

How It Works

A look at the nuclear reactor and its capabilities. B3


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