Local nuclear news and views -- why are they decommissioning San Onofre Unit 1 now?
by Russell D. Hoffman, July 3rd, 2001

Right now (2001) they are decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station Unit I, an older reactor shut down in 1992.

Why are they doing this now?  They had originally planned to wait at least 10 more years.

I suspect the main reason they are rushing to decommission the reactor now is that they want to get it done before proposed Low Level Radioactive Waste regulations looming on the horizon take effect.  The plant operators say it's because the people that know the plant will be retiring soon, and they also say they have the money already (because we gave it to them in rate hikes), but I still think it's because it would probably cost San Onofre hundreds of millions of dollars more if they wait until after the new regulations take effect.

After all, in Hanford, WA, in the early 1990's, new EPA regulations took effect for disposal of their irradiated old pumps.  Costs went from negligible to about $1,500,000.00 per pump.  The pumps themselves only cost about $30,000 each to purchase, so this was a significant leap.  I can't say what specific impact new regulations would have on disposal costs for San Onofre Unit 1's many pumps, but it's a good guess the difference is significant.  I can also tell you that right now, most of San Onofre's pumps, even irradiated ones, have a negligible disposal cost.

But aside from costs, another consideration which suggests renewable energy is the best solution is this:  Renewable, distributed, varied sources of energy are much more reliable.

Nuclear power plants are big and seldom average more than about an 85% "uptime" over the course of a year.  The utilities have learned to manage scheduled downtime to complete as many maintenance tasks as possible, and every nuke brings in "specialists" for the periodic refueling operations (which are actually scheduled around these specialists' availability, as much as around the best time to remove the fuel from a conservation/waste management point of view (after all, wasted fuel costs them virtually nothing to dispose of)).  But it works the other way, too -- the plants go down for no particular reason, or for 1000 different little reasons, like say, a circuit breaker explodes which causes a fire which causes all lubrication systems for the turbine to fail, which causes it to come to a stop in 4 minutes, instead of the usual 24-hour slowdown, which bends the turbine shaft, breaks the bearings it rides in, and causes a four-month outage when local energy supplies are said to be short (which may be political, but that's another story).  Sounds far-fetched?  If it hadn't happened in February, I suppose it would sound far-fetched to me too! 

The day they finally were able to bring the reactor back up to full power, the very day, June 1st, 2001, they also happened to drop an 80,000 pound crane 40+ feet in the turbine building (they were moving it with a gantry).  NRC had no regulatory interest in this capital loss, because it wasn't in the radiological area.  Mistakes like that could pretty easily shut down the plant for another four months, who knows?  Then, on June 25th, 2001, there was an explosion and fire in the switchyard at San Onofre. Fortunately of 54 similar transformers in the yard, the one that blew up was apparently one of the end ones and it blew out away from the others.  It blew glass shards out onto the street (actually onto a street, a railroad, and a busy freeway), but the plant was able to continue to feed the hungry grid.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is an accident waiting to happen.  In addition, it is far less reliable as an energy source than, say a few hundred 1 to 5-megawatt power suppliers, comprised of wind turbines, solar arrays, small-scale hydro, wave and tide energy systems, and various other generators including geothermal, which is usually both steady and reliable energy, and so on.

Nuclear power plants need "offsite power" available at all times, or they must run on back-up diesel generators which are at best unreliable, and often fail when the inspection schedule demands that they try to start them.  (There are normally two generators per power plant.)  For this reason the power plants themselves are not being hit by these local blackouts, I can guarantee you that.  Anyway, my point is that the most reliable way to ensure that nuke plants and their spent fuel pools have reliable power it to make it a mix of power from a variety of renewable sources in a variety of locations.  These small-scale generators may not always all be able to deliver power at the same time -- in fact they may not ever be able to all be delivering power at the same time (and we might not need so much), but they would likewise never all be off-line at once either.  It's kind of funny that the best ultimate backup for a nuclear power plant turns out to be renewable energy!  Or at least it would be funny if it wasn't true that the NRC would never mandate, promote, encourage, or design such a system, because it would be such bad publicity.

Locally, activists are hoping that a local solar panel company can build the most suitable types of panels for our local climatic conditions.  The industry that makes the panels won't be a small industry, but it's sure to be a necessary one.  Not that we should relax EPA standards or anything!

Yes, there are drawbacks to even the best renewable solutions, but as someone who has been introduced to many marvelous inventions in my life (especially in regards to pumps, motors, compressors, computers, etc.), I must say that some solutions are incredibly elegant yet still not in common use for lack of R&D money to develop them.  Some renewable energy projects are enormous undertakings.  Only a species capable of building things like the pyramids, the Hoover Dam, the Chunnel, the Saturn V, the Great Wall of China, and similar undertakings should even consider the possibility of accomplishing such a task.  On the other hand, a species which has put all those things under its belt can surely figure this out if it tries.  I'm counting on it for the sake of humanity!

Russell Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA
(adapted from a letter to Tony Boys)

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First posted July, 2001.

Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman