California energy officials plan for life without San Onofre

The San Onofre nuclear power plant could remain shut down through summer 2013.
(Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times)

California energy officials are beginning to plan for the possibility of a long-range future without the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

The plant’s unexpected, nearly five-month outage has had officials scrambling to replace its power this summer and has become a wild card in already complicated discussions about the state’s energy future.

That long-range planning process already involves dealing with the possible repercussions of climate change, a mandate to boost the state’s use of renewable sources to 33% of the energy supply by 2020 and another mandate to phase out a process known as once-through cooling, which uses ocean water to cool coastal power plants, that will probably take some other plants out of service.

“Some of the weaknesses we have in the infrastructure [of Southern California] are laid bare by San Onofre,” said Steve Berberich, chief executive of the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit that oversees most of the state’s energy grid.


Berberich and other energy leaders gathered in Los Angeles on Friday for a meeting convened by the California Energy Commission looking at long-term plans for California’s power grid. The closed Southern California nuclear plant loomed large over the discussions. Before the current shutdown at the plant, officials had planned only for a scenario in which one of the reactors would be off line. No one had anticipated a complete shutdown.

The plant’s 2,200 megawatts of power provide electricity to about 1.4 million homes, but the facility also provides voltage support to the transmission system that allows power to be imported from elsewhere to the region San Onofre serves, particularly San Diego.

The plant has been down since Jan. 31 because of problems involving unusual wear on tubes in newly replaced steam generators. Plant operator Southern California Edison has not yet submitted a plan to fix the issues to theU.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has said the plant will remain shut down at least through the summer. It’s unclear how long the plant will be out of service or what the ultimate solution will be.

Officials said that with contingency plans in place for this summer, including temporarily bringing two retired gas-fired units in Huntington Beach back on line, Southern California should not see rolling blackouts under most circumstances. But an extreme heat wave or outage at another power plant or on a major transmission line could strain the system.

California ISO officials said they are beginning to plan for the possibility that the plant will still be off line next summer and hope to have a contingency plan by the end of this July.

One of the main solutions cobbled together for this summer, bringing the Huntington Beach units back into service, will not be available next summer because that plant’s air emission credits will go to a new plant opening in the City of Industry.

That plant should be on line by summer 2013, but it’s not as well situated as the Huntington Beach units to make up for the power lost from San Onofre, ISO officials said.

The ISO is also beginning to look at long-range scenarios in which California would use no nuclear power from either San Onofre or the state’s one other nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon on the Central Coast.


S. David Freeman, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, blasted the state’s leaders for waiting until crisis hit the San Onofre plant before planning other options.

“I just personally feel a sense of embarrassment that we have let a situation go where we have put too many eggs in a nuclear basket in one part of the state,” he said. “Why are we sitting here today without adequate transmission to move power freely in the state of California?”

Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission is considering launching an investigation into the costs of repairing or replacing San Onofre’s steam generators and the potential effect on ratepayers of the shutdown. The commission was set to vote on the investigation Thursday but postponed action until August.

PUC member Michel Florio said the commission put off action to give Edison and the NRC more time to look into the technical side of the problems at the plant.


NRC officials said last week that the issues appear to stem from inaccurate computer modeling by steam generator manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

In a statement, Mitsubishi said that it had designed the generators “in line with our customer’s specific needs and with customer input, using the best available data and established industry standards,” and that the NRC’s findings were preliminary.