Calif. Nuclear Plant Still Offline After Six Months

The San Onofre Nuclear Generation Energy Station has been offline since the end of January. That's when a radiation leak occurred from worn steam generating tubes in the reactor. Several inspections later, the plant remains closed just as summer in Southern California begins to heat up.

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In late January, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station about 90 minutes south of L.A. was taken offline. That was after radioactive water leaked inside the plant. Six months later, the plant is still closed, and some residents are worried, not about the power supply, but the power source itself. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spent a day in the neighboring seaside town of San Clemente to take the local temperature.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: San Clemente used to be nationally known as the site of Richard Nixon's Western White House. But this year, San Clemente became known for what it's next to: a crippled nuclear plant.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good evening. We begin with developing news tonight. A reactor unit is shut down right now at the San Onofre nuclear...

BATES: ...nationally known as the site of Richard Nixon's Western White House. But this year, San Clemente became known for what it's next to: a crippled nuclear plant.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good evening. We begin with developing news tonight. A reactor unit is shut down right now at the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

BATES: Southern California Edison, which runs the plant, said the amount of leaked radiation was tiny and completely contained. In a report released yesterday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Edison properly reported changing the design of its replacement steam generators, but the NRC still hasn't given its OK for the station to restart. Standing in front of the seawall that guards the plant, local resident Gary Headrick said, at first, the news was no big deal.

GARY HEADRICK: It wasn't that alarming when Edison reported what had happened. At first, no radiation came out. They had a leak, but everything is fine, don't worry.

BATES: Headrick likes to surf this beach. He and his wife, Laurie, are co-founders of San Clemente Green, an environmental advocacy group. But as time went on, they started thinking more about last year's nuclear accident across the Pacific.

LAURIE HEADRICK: Well, we've had a lot of concerns prior to Fukushima, and then when Fukushima happened, it just brought the reality home. It was really a wake-up call.

BATES: The Headricks say when subsequent reports revealed that wear on the steam generator tubes had caused a leak that was indeed radioactive, they and many area residents began to press for San Onofre to close for good. Fixing it was going to be very expensive, and Headrick says the region seems to be doing OK. So far, no blackouts.

HEADRICK: The whole idea that we absolutely need nuclear power has been washed away with the last six months.

BATES: Not everyone is worrying about whether San Onofre should reopen. On the dog-friendly section of Surf Beach, Diane Wenzel says natural and man-made dangers are the price she pays for living in paradise.

DIANE WENZEL: No. We also live on a fault zone, and I live here anyhow. There's a lot of good things living here, and I take the good with the bad.

BATES: When she's asked where her power comes from now, Wenzel pauses.

WENZEL: That's a great question. I don't know. I'm sure that somehow it's on the grid to be utilized from somewhere else.

BATES: San Onofre normally provides energy to about one and a half million households in Southern Orange and Northern San Diego Counties. So where does that power come from now? The California Independent System Operator operates the bulk of the state's electricity grid, and it manages the state's wholesale energy market. Spokesman Steven Greenlee says California ISO worked with regional utility companies and the state regulatory agency.

STEVEN GREENLEE: And what we came up with was a plan that would redirect energy into Orange County and the San Diego region to make sure that they had the supply that they needed to meet demand.

BATES: Extra power can be pulled from other parts of the grid if necessary. Businesses get financial incentives to cut back when needed, and public service announcements encourage residential consumers to do their part.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...becomes a community not using appliances until after 6 p.m., we've just made sure there'll be plenty of energy to go around even in a heat wave.

BATES: So far, it's working. The weather has cooperated, and supply is still greater than demand. But it's early summer, and Southern California's hottest months are still ahead. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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