SONGS to retire, decommission

san onofre 257x201By Will Davis

This morning, Edison International, parent company of Southern California Edison, made an announcement that it had decided to permanently retire the two-unit San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California.  Later in the morning, it held a teleconference to expand upon the details provided in the press release.

Edison President Ted Craver made it very clear during the teleconference, when asked about recovery for the project costs and the decision making process that led to this morning’s announcement, that the “definitive” event was the May 13 ruling by the ASLB (Atomic Safety and Licensing Board) that made it clear to the owners that the restart process would be a “long, uncertain” process that was not likely to result in any sort of final go/no-go restart decision potentially for over a year.

According to Craver and SCE President Ron Litzinger, the plan had been (as was well known) to operate Unit 2 at 70-percent power for a five-month test period, after which (hopefully) it would have been allowed to operate either at that power or, as was revealed newly at today’s telecon, potentially later an even higher power rating should safety have been proven. It was also revealed today that this restart plan, and in fact the plan all the way forward to the end of the site’s license in 2022, included never operating Unit 3 again. SCE had been figuring the costs of the whole project and factoring in the costs of buying replacement power, and decided that even though earlier the restart of Unit 2 was the “best cost option” if safety were assured, by the end of this year it certainly would not have been the “best cost option.” The ASLB decision and the crippling delay in decision making made it clear that restart couldn’t happen before that calculated end-of-year breakpoint at which restart was no longer economically viable.

In terms of paying for the decommissioning, SCE officials stated today that the San Onofre decommissioning fund contains about $2.7 billion after tax, and that this constitutes about 90 percent of the required funding for the decommissioning—meaning that the monies required to defuel, and demolish, the plant are mostly on hand. What isn’t clear is how much of the other costs the rate payers and shareholders will be on the hook for.

Craver and Litzinger described three basic related cost groups for San Onofre; namely, replacement power costs, O&M or Operating and Maintenance Costs, and the investment in San Onofre itself will have to be balanced by four recovery processes that include monies from rate payers, any awarded monies from Mitsubishi (which mostly designed and then built the steam generators,) NEIL or Nuclear Electric Insurance, Ltd. insurance monies, and finally money from the shareholders. According to Litzinger, the total allocated cost for the steam generator replacement program was $665 million; costs incurred to date on the project total $602 million. The SCE officials stated that the total value of the plant as an asset is roughly $2.1 billion and that SCE had “reduced its outlook by twenty cents in earnings per share.” The total amounts that may be recovered either through California Public Utilities Commission—approved rate increases, or through litigated action with Mitsubishi—are not known at this time, meaning that the entire cost recovery picture at this moment is still quite vague.

The SCE officials were asked during the teleconference if they’d actually considered replacement of the still-new but flawed Mitsubishi steam generators; the answer was essentially “yes,” but that the costs of such an operation could not be recovered in the nine years the plant has left on its license. In a very interesting twist, twice Craver said that it was not at all certain, “given the recent events” surrounding San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (and other events such as Fukushima Daiichi’s accident, and continued seismic concerns on the US West Coast), that it could bet on receiving a license extension to operate the two plants beyond 2022 (saying that an extension was “not automatic, not guaranteed and not quick”), which is what would have been required to pay off yet another set of steam generators. The amount of money that such a further replacement would cost had been calculated but according to Craver “hasn’t been released to the public as of yet.”

It’s essential to the area that replacement power be found for San Onofre.  Litzinger observed that the “best case” replacement generating capacity would be in the L.A. basin, and would combine natural gas fired combined-cycle base load plants with natural gas peakers and some new transmission line. Should extra generating capacity not be possible in the basin, a good deal of transmission line would have to be built. The observation was made that SCE was already scheduling to experience some loss of generating capacity in the area as fossil plants were phased out, and that with those and San Onofre, SCE generated about 1/3 of the energy it delivered and bought 2/3 of it. Now, SCE will only potentially generate about 1/8 of the energy it delivers and will have to buy 7/8 of it from other producers.

Details about the decommissioning are, quite expectedly, not set yet. Craver said that the process would be a “multi-decade” one. Details were not yet available as to whether SONGS would be placed in a SAFSTOR condition or immediately move to DECON. SCE officials did say this morning that Unit 3 was already defueled, and that Unit 2 would be defueled in a “matter of weeks.” At time of writing, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had still not officially been notified of the decision to retire the plant.

In the end, it appears that the convoluted process that was seemingly being invented as it went to review the safety of the steam generators after the effect of fluid elastic instability became known (and there was a primary to secondary leak in Unit 3) is what killed the plant—from SCE’s standpoint. SCE made it clear that restart and operation of Unit 2 was for some time a carefully calculated “best cost option,” which would have allowed the plant to begin generating at least 70 percent of the capacity of one of the two units to get revenue coming back in. The continued dragging out of the process to ensure safety of that unit was propped up today as the prime reason for the change in direction to retire and decommission the plant.

Some might quickly respond that it was technical problems that killed the plant. Perhaps in the bigger picture, this is correct; but in the earlier days of nuclear energy, quite a large number of technical problems were encountered in nuclear plants and overcome after testing periods. SCE has quite consistently said in all venues that it believes that the instability in the steam generator tube bundles would be avoided completely at a lower power rating—a statement that we’ll never be able to prove or disprove operationally now that Unit 2 will never restart. In the interest of public safety and transparency, and in light of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, it may be that the concept of testing the plant without wholesale repair or replacement of faulty parts was just too much for a now-suspicious populace to support.

Further links:

NRC Blog Post on San Onofre today

NEI on the San Onofre shutdown

ANS Nuclear Cafe (March 15) – San Onofre debate now more public and more technical

ANS Nuclear Cafe (November 1, 2012) – San Onofre reactors face divergent paths to restart

Atomic Power Review – Meredith Angwin guest post on Steam Generator design and testing, relative to San Onofre

Background:  Steam Generator Design (Atomic Power Review)

SCE commentary on MHI steam generator evaluation (Atomic Power Review)


WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he will serve on the ANS Public Information Committee 2013-2016.  In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is on the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.  He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.

About Will Davis

Will Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian, newsletter editor and member of the board of directors. Davis has recently been engaged by the Global America Business Institute as a consultant. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013–2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

10 thoughts on “SONGS to retire, decommission

  1. Robert Margolis

    Interesting regarding the license renewal question. At least it shows that plants that get license renewal provide economic cushion for repairs. I recall Alvin Weinberg discussing what might happen if plants could get longer extensions (80 years, 100 years…). Vessel replacements might then be economically feasible and the capital costs sink away.

    None of this takes the sting away of losing SONGS, Kewaunee, and Crystal River all in the same year, but something to consider as the fight to preserve and enhance the nuclear option continues in what appears to be less than nuclear friendly times…

  2. Wayne SW

    And for more “good news”, MidAmerican Energy (Buffett owns this bunch) has thrown in the towel on the SMR it was planning to build somewhere in Iowa. But it is still going to build 600-700 windmills. Can anyone else out there see where all this is going? This “nuclear renaissance” is being snuffed out faster than a match in a hurricane.

  3. Will Davis Post author

    That’s a clever enough quote, but that’s all it is. I would have to imagine that you’re ignoring the allocation of funds to build Generation mPower SMR plants at Clinch River, the ongoing construction of four large 1000 MW class reactors at two different locations (Vogtle and V.C. Summer) as well as the ongoing completion of Watts Bar Unit 2, to be followed (when that unit is fueled) by the restart of work on Bellefonte 1 and 2. Oh… and the continued promise of a second SMR fund allocation later this year, for intended project completion by 2025.

    What most pro-wind people don’t seem to understand is that there’s nothing about wind patterns that reflects human activity. At least in terms of solar energy, people (and businesses) tend to be active during the mid-day when solar energy is at a theoretical maximum (unless it’s raining, snowing, overcast, etc.) Wind patterns don’t follow that cycle at all. With no workable energy storage, wind is a total dud at this point.

    We’ll ignore the fact that many major factories (such as those in the auto industry) work around the clock, unrelated to wind and sun cycles. They want and need power all day, every day. That’s where nuclear stands out among dispatchable generators — and it’s in fact the only carbon free dispatchable generator.

  4. Wayne SW

    I’m not a windie. I’m just down about this SONGS business. It’s too soon on the heels of Kewaunee and Crystal River. It renders moot almost all the gains we might realize from the projects you note. It seems for every new project planned (not finished) we’re losing an equal number of existing units, often for no good reason. We’ve got to cut that out. Look at Kewaunee. A perfectly functional plant, nothing wrong with it. Yet it is being rendered useless for no other reason than the declining powers of men themselves.

  5. Will Davis Post author

    I see; my apologies for having misinterpreted your stance. Nuance is indeed hard to detect in print!

    My feeling for a long time has been that, one way or another, we were going to start seeing shutdowns of nuclear plants.. in fact, I’ve expected it. While things like Trojan or San Onofre Unit 1 were sort of isolated issues (although both involved steam generators) they were also harbingers of what might come to pass if anti-nuclear activity became integral in the NRC’s regulatory occupation. What’s been missed is that the “intervenors” aren’t simply in search of safety and riding the fence; they’re OPPONENTS, and have a vested interest in stopping nuclear energy. After all, that’s what they’re paid to do… at least the bigshots.

    So seeing nuclear plants begin to shut down here and there is, for right now, a bit ahead of the “expected curve” since they’re doing so for reasons that could either have been avoided or else have been overcome, prior to license expiration. But when the licenses begin to expire and renewals become backed up (and aren’t they going to be so long as Waste Confidence is up in the air?) we’ll really begin to see the numbers drop. THAT event horizon is the one that must be mitigated against – and we’re not totally out of time yet.

  6. Thomas Murray

    The closure of SONGS is a sad day for the nuclear industry. Despite the steam generator issue, which SONGS recognized, assessed and developed appropriate mitigation strategies, SCE/Edison is a leader in the nuclear operations world, particularly with regard to safety. Although Barbara Boxer expressed joyful glee regarding the closure, her failure to understand the electrical realities in CA and the US are clear given her statements. Pacific Gas and Electric suffered a similar fate for their Humboldt Bay Power Plant (Eureka, CA) which also had remaining life but regulatory uncertainty made a return on investment unclear for PG&E.

  7. Wayne SW

    I know it sounds mean to say, but I really hope that these wackos pay a price for this. If that means higher prices, so be it. If it means rolling blackouts, tough. If it means more smog from burning more gas in the LA basin, then, well, you make your choices, and you live with them. If it means more businesses leaving CA because of high prices of electricity and/or unreliable supply, sorry, that’s the way of things. These people need to know that there is a price to pay for this kind of short-sightedness. If that is what it takes to make people understand the consequences of their actions, then that’s just the way it goes. CA is a basket case as it is, with unemployment, lousy economic growth, high taxes and cost of living, and any other number of problems. This is just going to add to the misery. Another business shut down, more people out of work.

  8. James Greenidge

    Re: “I know it sounds mean to say, but I really hope that these wackos pay a price for this. “But you know, Wayne, FUD has been drummed so high that many all over would cheerfully eat the extra smog and electric hikes. It’s insane that states like Vermont and New York are clamoring for such and to level forests and mountains and ruin seascapes so to shut their nukes down, their worldwide 50-year nil mortality and public damage be damned. Fear steamrollers over fact and reason and even natural values. Crazy! It ought be long obvious by now that nuclear has no friends in this billion green buck administration past lip service and the nuclear community is going to have get its act together on one page and rely on its own devices and social talents and overdue mass education to just keep afloat, and this issue is also not a good mark for the quality of science education as a whole in the U.S. Funny, but it may get to the point that all the exciting nuclear news we’ll ever have is in Asia.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  9. Wayne SW

    I hear you. I have “debated” any number of times with people who say they prefer natural gas before nuclear. I point out the thousands of cases of respiratory illnesses that result from air pollution from NG burning (NOx and CO2) and they just say, oh well. I point out the thousands who have been burned to death in natural gas accidents (San Juan Ixhuatepec, San Bruno, New London Texas, which killed 300 schoolchildren) and they just say “meh”. I point out the terrible effects methane has on atmospheric degradation and they just shug and say they prefer natural gas over nuclear. I point out that nuclear has zero fatalaties among the general public and they still freak out about “unsafe” nukes. How do you have a rational discussion with people who prefer to die rather than live with a clean and safe energy source?

  10. Bruce Behrhorst

    Me thinks it’s the debt based economy the U.S. is toiling under gaining more power, truly sad to see misguided policy enacted.
    In an equity based economy there would more cooperation to manufacture and thus a need for high quality N reactors to generate power for a vibrant economy. The U.S. like San Onofre Nuclear Electric Generating Station is being dismantled piece by piece – shame.