Residents speak up on San Onofre

Money and power were on the agenda Thursday afternoon, as dozens of area residents weighed in at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing in Costa Mesa on whether to reopen two troubled units at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, and to what extent ratepayers should foot the bills racked up by the outages.

The plant has been shuttered for more than a year because of unusual degradation of steam generator tubes carrying radioactive water. The commission launched an investigation in October into the costs of the outage at San Onofre, which could eventually result in some rates being refunded to customers of Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. That investigation may not be completed until 2014, but a decision could be made on the first phase, which will examine the plant’s 2012 costs, in July.

The commission will look at the costs of the faulty replacement steam generators that prompted the plant’s shutdown at a later phase in the investigation.

Thursday’s hearing, which stretched over three hours, was the first of two that day aimed at gathering public input on what the commission called Edison’s “operational and financial response” to the San Onofre outages. The commission is also planning a second set of hearings in San Diego County, but dates haven’t yet been set.

Comments from the hearings, a CPUC news release said, will be filed as part of official investigation records.

Neon green signs reading, “Cut our losses. Not a penny more to Edison,” bobbed in the audience as speakers demanded that Edison decommission the station and refund money collected for costs related to the outages.

“Customers should not be paying a dime for a nonfunctioning nuclear plant,” said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the ratepayer advocacy nonprofit, The Utility Reform Network (TURN).

Added Grace van Thillo, 68, of San Clemente, “We’re depending on the [commission].”

She suggested that the more than $1 billion collected for the plant be put toward a decommissioning fund, and to increase long-term power grid reliability.

Others — many speaking on behalf of local business advocacy groups — urged the commission to work toward getting the plant back online as soon as possible.

Not having reliable access to energy for their businesses, they told Commissioner Mike Florio and Administrative Law Judge Melanie Darling, puts a damper on economic growth.

“Orange County is leading California’s recovery, but this recovery is fragile,” said Bryan Starr, senior vice president of the Orange County Business Council, adding that loss of power would be “devastating to the economy.”

“This leaves the question, if not SONGS, then what?” he asked.

Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry echoed that sentiment, saying that “safe, reliable energy is essential to a functioning economy.”

Interim options, such as a formerly retired natural gas plant in Huntington Beach, aren’t sufficient in the long term, he said.

Some audience members took the opportunity to bring up allegations that Edison officials ignored potential problems that could have led to the malfunctions.

Earlier this month, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) claimed that a leaked confidential report shows that Edison and steam generator manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were aware of defects in the design of the equipment and failed to make modifications in order to avoid triggering a license amendment process. The companies deny the allegation, and the report has not yet been publicly released.

But San Clemente mom Patti Davis, 50, said that regardless of how much the utility knew, the plant shouldn’t reopen.

“If Edison knew about these flawed designs — and we’re all waiting for that news — but if that’s the case, that is a criminal act,” she said. “If Edison didn’t knowingly install defective equipment, that shows Edison is clueless.”

Either way, she said, “there is no escape route” from radiation.

Edison spokesman Steven Conroy said that the utility intends to work with the commission through a “clear, adjudicated process” and to “engage with the community.”

While he said “there’s certainly an emotional side” to the afternoon’s comments, “a number of people expressed that they placed a high premium on safe and reliable power.”

The company is also awaiting a decision from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on a restart proposal for one of the plant’s two units.

—Los Angeles Times Staff Writer Abby Sewell contributed to this report.

Twitter: @jillcowan