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The Hidden Costs of Nuclear Power

by RUSSELL D. HOFFMAN

A few weeks ago Southern California Edison (SCE) was given several billion dollars by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in a General Rate Case (GRC).  The timing was perfect for SCE.  The Order Initiating Investigation (OII) regarding San Onofre’s twin-reactor wear-and-tear problems is currently in a nebulous 45-day “grace” period, and so the fact that San Onofre wasn’t running and might never run again wasn’t factored in to the GRC that the CPUC just approved — it was as if they didn’t know.

The OII is small potatoes to SCE.  To them, the OII is all about the money, and they’re trying to keep as much of it as possible.  SCE doesn’t really care about who pays — they don’t expect it to cost them AT ALL: They’re sure that the steam generator (SG) manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) will cover some of the costs, insurance will cover even more, and the ratepayers will cover the rest.

What SCE cares about — all they care about — is that the work to restart/rebuild San Onofre be allowed to proceed, and that the ratepayer’s rates don’t go down just because the — very expensive — power plant is off-line.  San Onofre’s monthly expenses are enormous whether it’s running or not.  SCE wants ratepayers to pay for rebuilding the reactors, but SCE still doesn’t know how they’ll do that.  In the meantime, they simply want the ratepayers to keep paying for San Onofre’s upkeep.

The effort to restart San Onofre is a totally bogus scam for a totally terrible reason:  To create deadly poisons in enormous quantities and risk releasing those poisons into the environment, destroying Southern California.  Poisons with nowhere safe to put them anywhere.  SCE wants to produce some electricity along with these poisons, the poisons will remain but the electricity which will be gone in a flash.  Furthermore, the electricity could easily be produced by renewable resources, especially if the same money that will be poured into San Onofre were to be put into solar rooftops and wind turbines instead.

SCE plans to have the ratepayer-funded rebuilding completed within 3 or 4 years — or more.  The replacement SGs that failed will be replaced again, with better-positioned anti-vibration supports and proper clearances between the tubes.  SCE wants MHI, the SG manufacturer, to pay the full amount of their potential liability.  But who is really to blame?  Considering the nearly 1 billion dollar cost and the potential consequences of failure, SCE surely had an obligation to properly inspect the SGs, and to understand how they function.  SCE should have carefully checked MHI’s work before and after installing and using the new SGs.   They should have seen that the tolerances weren’t right.  But instead, three weeks after Unit 2 was shut down for refueling anyway for the first time since the SG replacement, during which time a reasonable inspection would have uncovered thousands of unusual wear points, Unit 3 sprung a leak and we almost lost SoCal.

SCE plans to have new SGs in BOTH reactors by 2022 at the very latest.  Why then?  Their current license extension expires then, and they’ll want to secure another extension to operate the reactors for another 20 years, and 20 more after that — and 20 more again, after that!  Endlessly.

SCE claims the “new” new SGs will be good for 60 years, just like they told us last time, and the time before that.  But lots of other parts are rusting out too. Valves along the Main Steam Lines, for instance?  What near the sea DOESN’T rust?!?  SCE wants such parts excluded from the “reasonableness review” of SanO that will be part of the OII.  Piece by piece, the whole reactor needs replacing. but don’t tell the citizens it’s falling apart!  (And not just the old parts, but the new parts are falling apart, too!.

SCE attempts to claim that SanO belongs in the category of facilities “needed to maintain the reliability of the electric supply” even though we’ve seen that it’s NOT needed, since it’s been off since January, and there have been no blackouts or brownouts, despite little or no preparation for a long-term outage by the utility company.

SCE is using the claim of SanO being “needed” to demand all the money necessary to repair it from the ratepayers, courtesy of the CPUC.  SCE is demanding that SanO be considered necessary even though it isn’t.  And they want the long-term costs of waste storage to be excluded from considerations about the costs of SanO, too!  And the costs of decommissioning, other repairs, etc..  And the costs of accidents!

Nuclear Power: Always made to look a lot cheaper than it really is

Interestingly, SCE continues to admit that they don’t know what really went wrong in Unit 3, that they don’t know what the important differences are between the two units, and that they don’t know what will happen if they try to run at a lower power.  SCE just figures that either the Unit 2 SGs won’t break in the first five months, OR if they do break, it will be a simple leak, small enough to be “harmless” but large enough to detect, like what happened, luckily enough, last January 31, 2012.  SCE does not contemplate, or believe, that a cascade of tube failures might occur, even though they acknowledge not knowing why Fluid Elastic Instability plagued Unit 3 but hardly touched Unit 2 — if at all.

SCE is specifically ignoring any discussion of the possibility that restart will result in a catastrophic destruction of the entire SoCal region, where eight and a half million people live.  Instead, they requested that the OII be strictly limited in scope to the costs and problems of restarting BOTH units, and to ensuring that the ratepayers pay for it ALL in advance (again).

SCE cites several cases that they say prove a history of OIIs taking a long time and being tied to their next upcoming GRC (which is in 2015).  They want the OII to be deferred until all the other legal cases are fought out in court or hearings or wherever, so that the total costs will be adjusted by any amounts they win in those proceedings.   Some of these litigations are relatively small and all of them could drag on for years.

SCE doesn’t want a variety of costs they say are not directly related to the outage to be included in the refundable amounts.  These include costs for spent fuel in the spent fuel pools and in dry casks, and security costs.  But NONE of these costs would be incurred — they would not exist — if SanO were ANY other kind of power plant other than a nuke plant.  So as far as I can tell, these costs ARE directly related to the cost of San Onofre being what it is — a nuke plant that doesn’t work.  Since it was SCE’s decision to build a nuke plant instead of a solar, hydro, wind or other renewable energy resource, these site-specific costs SHOULD be included in the refundable amount, in my opinion.

Southern California Edison owns a lot of things:  Nuclear power plants that don’t work and yet still risk catastrophic failure, fossil fuel plants that pollute the air, transmission lines that should be buried but that’s too expensive, smart meters… and apparently, they think they own the CPUC, as well.

Russell D. Hoffman lives in Carlsbad, California. He is an educational software developer and bladder cancer survivor, as well as a collector of military and nuclear historical documents and books. He is the author and programmer of the award-winning Animated Periodic Table of the Elements. He can be reached at: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com

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