Plug Pulled On California Nuclear Plant, For Good

Southern California Edison announced Friday morning that it will not restart the troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant. The facility has been offline for a year and a half after a leak in a steam tube created safety concerns.

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In Southern California, a nuclear power plant that supplied energy to more than a million homes is shutting down for good. As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, the San Onofre nuclear plant has been idle for repair since January of 2012.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: The twin, white domes at the San Onofre nuclear power plant have been landmarks on the California coast for more than four decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

JAFFE: That's also made the plant a focus for anti-nuclear protests like this one last year, on the anniversary of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

JAFFE: The oceanfront power plant was updated recently. Brand-new generators designed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were installed in 2009 and 2010. But very quickly, it became clear that something was wrong. Tubes carrying pressurized, radioactive water were wearing out. The generators were finally shut down for investigation and repair when a small amount of radioactive steam escaped, and damage was found to be widespread.

Several months ago, Edison asked the nuclear regulatory commission for permission to restart one of the units at 70 percent power. But there were objections from Sen. Barbara Boxer, from local residents, and from the environmental organization Friends of the Earth.

DAMON MOGLEN: The industry's own, independent judges said, wait a minute. That's an experiment. You've never done that before.

JAFFE: Damon Moglen is director of the organization's climate and energy program.

MOGLEN: And our technical people said, that's crazy. You could have a disastrous outcome from running damaged equipment.

JAFFE: Meanwhile, the NRC hadn't ruled. Steven Conroy, director of communications at Southern California Edison, said the company simply couldn't wait any longer for a response.

STEVEN CONROY: To remove the uncertainty of a potentially continuing and protracted decision not coming, we opted to make the announcement that we would decommission the San Onofre nuclear-generating station.

JAFFE: Keeping the plant open and ready to start, he said, was costing the company $30 million a month. In the short term, Conroy says, Southern California Edison is focused on finding enough power to get California through the summer, replacing the power that San Onofre might have supplied. Last year, the company upgraded transmission and encouraged conservation. They're doing more of that this year.

CONROY: The challenge is the things that we can't control; Mother Nature - certainly, high temperatures - wildfires.

JAFFE: In the longer term, the San Onofre nuclear power-generating station will be decommissioned. That will put more than 1,000 employees out of work, and the process will take years.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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