What does California use for power when nuclear reactors are offline?

San Onofre v. clean energy is back on the CPUC agenda Thursday, April 19, at 9 a.m. in the Commission Auditorium, 505 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; attend or call to listen (800) 857-1917, passcode: 92105

by Barbara George, Women’s Energy Matters

That’s the question Women’s Energy Matters wants the California Public Utilities Commission to address, but CPUC ignored it in its Feb. 21, 2012, Proposed Decision pending in the Rulemaking to Integrate and Refine Procurement Policies. Longtime CPUC watchdog Women’s Energy Matters (WEM) is a party to this proceeding, which considers how California’s clean energy technologies can best be combined with traditional resources in utilities’ procurement plans.

After the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, WEM proposed that CPUC launch a planning process for replacing nuclear power with the cleanest, most affordable resources available, should California’s reactors be offline for any reason. I say it’s high time for CPUC to explore clean, affordable replacement for nuclear power, especially since San Onofre’s two reactors have been out of service for two months, and majority owner Southern California Edison (SCE) is silent about when they’ll be restarted.

Even the usually blasé Nuclear Regulatory Commission has expressed concern about premature wear in San Onofre’s nearly-new steam generators, and on April 6, Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko visited San Onofre to see for himself. According to CNN, he “refused to give a timetable as to when the San Onofre nuclear plant could resume operation. He said only that his agency had ‘set some firm conditions’ as to when that could happen.

“’We won’t make a decision (to approve the facility’s restart) unless we’re satisfied that public health and safety will be protected,’ Jaczko told reporters. ‘They have to demonstrate to us that they understand the causes, and … that they have a plan to address them.’”

Summer’s coming. Power demand is climbing. During past nuclear outages, Edison just purchased “system power” for replacement. This is mostly coal and natural gas, which causes irresponsible and unnecessary pollution and global warming. The commission should make sure that Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, 20 percent owner of San Onofre, use affordable, clean resources instead.

Energy efficiency, demand response and rooftop solar should be at the top of that list. But unfortunately CAISO, the California transmission grid operator, testified in the case last summer that it “has no visibility” of resources attached to “distribution,” i.e. neighborhood wires, because utilities keep that information secret. This needs to change for CAISO to allow local clean energy to substitute for power plants.

Concerned that invisibility could result in “forecast errors,” it hoped “to establish and agree with utilities on approach for getting updates regarding penetration and location of distributed energy resources,” CAISO said in response to a data request.

WEM exposed utilities’ scare tactics in the proceeding. “CAISO’s 2010-11 Transmission Plan concluded that Southern California’s grid could survive hot summers without San Onofre: ‘The study results from various studies showing that there are no thermal overloads, voltage or stability concerns related to the SONGS units under normal or emergency conditions.’ Even after 2015, when transmission lines may be loaded with power from large new solar and wind projects in the desert, CAISO said there is enough local backup power to ‘mitigate all concerns.’”

Southern California Edison contradicted CAISO’s report when it claimed it would have to implement rolling blackouts in hot weather. SCE and PG&E also allege that it would take nearly a decade and billions of dollars to build replacement power for San Onofre and Diablo Canyon.

But that’s only if they follow NRC guidelines that limit alternatives to a single source – leading PG&E to decide that only gas-fired power plants could be used to replace Diablo. That is nonsense, and it’s contrary to California laws, which require a diverse mix, prioritizing efficiency and renewables.

We can quickly build clean, local resources that are more reliable, provide more jobs and economic benefits to communities, and present none of the terrible downsides of nuclear power. WEM recommends proactively closing Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear power stations.

Background information

For more information, read the documents in the procurement case at http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/published/proceedings/R1005006.htm, and read WEM’s comments on the proposed decision at http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/efile/CM/161780.pdf.

A graph created from Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents shows that San Onofre has by far the worst safety record of all U.S. nuclear plants: http://sanonofresafety.org.

On Jan. 31, 2011, one of 10,000 tubes in a Unit 3 steam generator sprang a leak. Highly radioactive water circulates through the reactor to cool the fuel rods and then passes through tubes in the steam generator; this water leaked into clean water that surrounds the tubes in the steam generator, which is flashed into steam to spin the turbine.

Radioactive steam escaped, set off alarms, and the plant was shut down. Degraded tubes were found in Unit 2, which was already shut down for refueling and other repairs. San Onofre steam generators were all replaced in the past two years. A malfunctioning steam generator led to the shutdown of San Onofre Unit 1 in 1992.

Women’s Energy Matters (WEM) is a nonprofit that promotes women’s perspectives on sustainability. WEM has been a watchdog in California regulatory proceedings since 2001, specializing in energy efficiency and procurement issues. WEM organized community support for the Marin Energy Authority, which offered 27 percent renewable energy in its very first year, 2010-11, and was ranked in the top 20 cleanest utilities in the U.S. MEA is the default electricity provider in Marin. To learn more, visit www.womensenergymatters.org. Contact Barbara George at bgwem@igc.org.