Southern California Edison announced plans to cut nearly one-third of its workforce at the troubled San Onofre nuclear plant, raising new questions about whether the plant will ever return to full operations.
The planned reduction of about 730 employees announced Monday will bring the plant's staffing down to 1,500. Details of the cuts will be worked out later this year, company officials said.
Edison said in a statement that the company had begun plans to downsize more than two years ago after concluding that San Onofre's staffing and costs were "significantly higher" than at similar nuclear plants.
In documents filed with the California Public Utilities Commission in 2010, the company outlined a projected reduction of 500 workers by October 2012. No staffing cuts have actually taken place since then, Edison spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre said.
On Jan. 31, a steam generator tube leaked, releasing a small amount of radioactive steam. The leak led to a complete shutdown of the plant and the eventual discovery of excessive wear on hundreds more tubes in the newly replaced steam generators. The outage has now stretched on for more than six months with no clear end in sight.
Manfre acknowledged that the plant's recent troubles influenced the decision on the number of jobs to be eliminated.
In a statement, Edison said, "The steam generator issues at [the plant] also require that SCE be prudent with its future spending while SCE and regulators review the long-term viability of the nuclear plant."
Company officials have said that they hope to submit a restart plan for Unit 2 to theU.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissionby the end of the year, but have backed off from making any projections about if or when Unit 3 might return to service.
"The reality is that the Unit 3 reactor will not be operating for some time," Edison said in the statement.
Edison International chief executive Theodore F. Craver Jr. told investors it was not clear whether the plant would ever be able to operate at full power without once again replacing the steam generators that malfunctioned.
Rochelle Becker, executive director of the watchdog group Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, said she thinks the planned layoffs signal that Unit 3 is not coming back online at all, and that Edison is being disingenuous about its plans for the plant.
"You can't lay off 700 people when you're trying to restart a plant — you hire more people when you have problems," Becker said. "I think the utility is being unfair to the ratepayers. I think they're being unfair to the workforce. I think if they're not going to operate this plant, they should come out and say they're not going to operate the plant."
Edison and the PUC have come under pressure over the costs of the outage to ratepayers, with the utility commission's Division of Ratepayer Advocates urging the panel to immediately cut utility rates so that customers would no longer be paying $54 million per month in operating costs "for a plant that is no longer 'used and useful.' "
San Onofre employee union representatives could not be immediately reached for comment on the planned layoffs.
The plant's full work force has been on duty during the outage to assist with activities relating to the inspections and repairs at the steam generators, including plugging 1,317 tubes to take them out of service, either because they were damaged or as a precautionary measure. That activity has now abated.
Manfre said a final staffing plan, which will outline which jobs are to be eliminated, will be finished by the end of October. She said it was too early to determine whether some workers would be hired back if and when the plant returns to service.