The control room at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was alight with alarms and flashing lights on January 31, when a severe radiation leak was confirmed to be occurring in ones of the 39,000 tubes that act as a way to transport radioactive water to the steam generators.

San Onofre NPP
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The failure that occurred directly following the leak led to one of California’s worst shutdowns and more than three months of paperwork and investigation for Southern California Edson officials and federal nuclear officials.

However, the official cause has yet to be determined and the future of the plant remains in jeopardy.

Now, officials see that more than 1,300 tubes have deteriorated and must be taken out of service. Edison officials say that even if the plant is reopened, it is unlikely that it will be able to run at full capacity.

The exact cause of the deterioration must be determined before the plant can be reopened.

The installation of $671 million of steam generators was just completed less than two years ago, which Edison officials said would save consumers lots of money. Now, unofficial estimates state that they would need about $65 million to fix the problems.

Officials said that they expect the investigation to reveal more conclusive results. They think that the wear is caused by friction, because when the plant is running at full power, the tubes vibrate like a guitar string, which causes some of them to rub against each other.

This could potentially endanger the lives of the people that live closest to the plant because it could leak radiation into the atmosphere and expose them to its detrimental effects.

Officials have yet to pinpoint the exact wrongdoings that led to these problems.

Investigators are researching whether the structure was flawed in its design, the construction of it, or its operation.

Tube wear is expected to occur over time, and there are other plants in the country that have suffered from faulty steam generators, but the quickness with which it occurred at San Onofre is an anomaly. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has prohibited Edison from reopening the plant until the problem is solved.

The majority of experts believe that the problem is most likely in the design.

“This is very unusual behavior in steam generators, and I think the most likely scenario was that there was some error in the design,” said Per Peterson, chairman of UC Berkeley’s Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Peterson indicated that he believed the problem was in the support structures meant to stop the tubes from vibrating excessively. He thinks that Edison would be best off running the plant at less than full-power, but knows that this would mean cutting into their revenues.

This week, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) demanded to see the documents from the NRC’s investigation and their plans for the new generators. She is trying to decide if Edison had fully informed the federal regulators about the design in the first place.

The other problem lies with deciding who is responsible for paying for the necessary repairs: Edison, the steam manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, or Southern California ratepayers.

Edison has a contract with Mitsubishi Industries for $137 million warranty that would cover repairs, but does not cover the costs of the lack of power that is being generated.

These costs have already reached the $30 million mark, and if the plant continues to be diabled, the costs will continue to rise.

California Public Utility Commission officials approved payments for replacing the steam generators when the plant needed them two years ago, but they were under the assumption that the plant would run at the projected 88% capacity until 2022.

They did run a test at the time to see how much it would cost if the plant were to shut down or run at a lower capacity for one year, and the test revealed that the project would be a money loser. They went ahead with the plan away because the PUC thought that the scenario was extremely unlikely.

“If the plant runs at 50 to 80 percent capacity for the rest of its life, the entire cost-effectiveness analysis is turned on its head,” said Matthew Freedman, attorney for advocacy group The Utility Reform Network.

PUC President Michael Peevey said that it is still too early to determine whether the project will be cost effective over time, but acknowledges that his project will ultimately have to decide who is responsible for paying for the mistakes.

“If Edison is found to have acted improperly or irresponsibly or without due regard for all the costs, Edison could end up paying for some portion of the replacement power,” he said.

It remains unclear whether a mechanical fix could be put into place to allow the generators to work at their full capacity again. Experts say that it is not necessarily a viable though, because of the economic costs that such a project would incur. Replacing the steam generators again is completely out of the question.

“It seems really unlikely that they are going to do that again. I think that they are going to be running at a lower rating and there will be lawsuits about that,” said Meredith Angwin, a former steam generator project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute.

The prolonged closure of the plant has ignited a furious debate throughout Southern California regarding whether the power grid relies too heavily on San Onofre.

Currently, the plant powers about 1.4 million homes and imports tons of electricity from elsewhere.

Officials said that with the emergency plans in place, California should be able to survive the summer months without any blackouts, but that the small fixes, like reusing an old Huntington Beach plant, are only temporary.

“Renewables aren’t a steady stream of supply. You have to have power to back up the renewables, and you have to have it in the right place,” said Fred Pickel, an energy industry consultant recently appointed ratepayer advocate for the city of Los Angeles.

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