Eva Knott 4:04 a.m., May 23
The Sustainability Alliance of Southern California last night hosted a discussion: “Nuclear Power in Southern California – Can We Afford It?”
Held at the California Center for Sustainable Energy in Clairemont, the few dozen attendees largely boasted energy backgrounds or experience in activism related to nuclear power and/or green energy. Featured speakers were Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility executive director Rochelle Becker and counsel for the Alliance/former executive director and commissioner of the California Energy Commission John Geesman.
A recurring theme of the talk was the cost of nuclear power, touted as a cheap alternative to gas-fired power plants or other means of power.
“For San Onofre, [the original cost estimate] was under $180 million dollars. But it was $4.7 billion dollars when finished,” Becker said. She also pointed out that the cost of new seismic studies needed due to the discovery of earthquake faults near the plant has risen from an original estimated cost of $21 million to a new request by plant operator Southern California Edison to bill its customers as well as those of San Diego Gas & Electric up to $64 million for the studies.
Of course, there’s also the issue of the new steam generators at the plant, which cost ratepayers up to $782 million (the final cost has not yet been disclosed) and are failing after less than two years in service, causing both reactors at San Onofre to sit idle since January.
A new investigation on the total damage from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is due out soon, but some information has already been released suggesting that degradation of tubes carrying radioactive liquid through the system is more significant than previously believed.
Another concern is changes in environmental law that will require the plants discontinue using the “once-through cooling” method that involves filtering seawater through the plant and releasing it, at a significantly raised temperature, into the ocean. Environmentalists have long derided this practice as harmful to marine life.
Finally, there’s the issue of nuclear waste storage. Tons of waste, generated since the plant first went online, has been sitting in exposed storage pools, vulnerable to system failure resulting from a natural disaster such as the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck at Fukushima or to terrorist attack. Scientists have long recommended dry cask storage, but even if this measure is implemented, current plans call for the waste to be stored along the coast for up to 250 years.
“Our position is to phase these nuclear plants out at the end of their license,” said Becker. “Of course, Edison has managed to phase theirs out at the moment.”
Geesman reminded the audience that SDG&E, which owns 20 percent of the plant, had originally rejected the idea of replacing the generators, given the upcoming expiration of the facility’s license, and explained that Edison had used an accounting sleight of hand to deem the generator replacement as “operations and maintenance,” rather than capital improvements, allowing their cost to be shifted from the utility’s shareholders to their captive consumers.