Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Reactions to reactor restart remarks about San Onofre

Southern California Edison says no plan submitted to NRC yet

If you've been following the saga of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), you know that last week Ron Litzinger, President of Southern California Edison (NYSE:EIX), which owns and operates the twin 1100 MW nuclear reactors, told California's electricity grid operator it may have Unit 2 back online by June 1 and Unit 3 up by June 12.

This week that announcement brought a response in the form of a terse statement from NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko who said the utility has not submitted any documents for the agency to review "so any discussion of a date for the restart of Unit 2 or Unit 3 is clearly premature." He said the media reports that SCE had given dates for restart are "erroneous."

In fact, there was nothing "erroneous" about the media reports.  Jaczko's problem is that he perceived that the utility was getting out in front of his agency's headlights.  While Jaczko might have reason to worry about the utility CEO's statement, his blunt language in an official agency press release can't have done much for how the utility or the industry views him or expectations for his engagement with the next operationally challenged reactor.

SCE takes a step back

Today, May 8, SCE issued a "clarification" in which it said there is no timeline for restarting the reactor. The utility also said Litzinger's remarks were strictly for "planning purposes" relative to the needs of the grid operator.

"Recent media reports referred to June dates for the restart of Units 2 and 3 at SONGS. However, those dates were provided by SCE to the ISO as a purely administrative matter in March of 2012 because, for long-range planning purposes, ISO requires an estimated return to service date to be posted. These dates are for planning purposes only and are subject to change." 

"We want to clarify the use of planning dates and make sure it is clear that there is no timeline on nuclear safety," said SCE President Ron Litzinger.

ISO is the California Independent System Operator which allocates space on transmission lines, maintains operating reserves of electricity, and matches supply with demand.

Rep. Issa tosses a big rock in a small pond

Rep. Issa
While this series of communications by press release was taking place, in Washington, DC, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), who's district includes the shut down reactors, released a letter raising the question of whether Jaczko lied to the House Oversight Committee last year when he said he was unaware of instances in which he was accused of losing his temper and bullying the agency’s staff.

Politico, a news service, reported that Issa and other Republicans on the committee, wrote in a letter to the NRC chair citing examples of alleged discrepancies in Jaczko's testimony saying that “making false statements to Congress is a serious matter."

Rep. Issa's timing in terms of the release of the letter over the weekend does not look like a coincidence.

The agency's "confirmatory action letter" is still the roadmap to restart of the San Onofre reactors regardless of what mis-statements Jackzo is alleged to have made, or did not make, to the House Oversight Committee. Paradoxically, Rep. Issa went with Jaczko on his personal inspection of San Onofre last month.

All this must frustrate the socks right off the feet of anti-nuclear groups in California who want the reactors closed for good. Instead of seeing growing support for their cause, the political establishment is doing everything in its power, and then some, to get the reactors working again.

Tubes plugged

In a related development, Reuters reported today that SCE has plugged 1300 tubes in the shut down steam generators. Of that number, 510 tubes have been plugged in Unit 2 and 807 tubes have been plugged in Unit 3.

There are over 9,700 steam tubes in each steam generator for each reactor. SCE has blamed the excessive wear that was found on the relatively new steam generator tubes on vibration which caused them to rub against each other and support structures.

SCE has said that as part of its restart plan that it will eventually submit to the NRC, it may decide to operate the reactors at less than full power. About halfway through the fuel cycle, it would shut down and inspect the steam generators for any signs of additional excessive wear.

SCE has estimated the cost of repairs at $55-65 million and plans to ask Mitsubishi, which installed the stream generators in 2009, to pay them. SCE says so far it has paid $30 million in fuel replacement costs.

The process steps that SONGS must take to re-start the reactors are spelled out in the NRC's  "confirmatory action letter."  SCE published an update on its web site describing what it has done so far. Once SCE completes these actions, the NRC will review them, inspect the plant, the reactors, and, most importantly, the steam generators, to determine if the facility can safely get back to the business of generating electricity instead of headlines.

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