Little Noticed Accident at San Onofre Nuclear Power Reactor is Key Story Behind California Blackouts
A significant accident February 3 at Southern California Edison's San Onofre-3 nuclear power reactor is a major cause of the rolling blackouts that have plagued California this week.
According to published reports, California has lacked up to 800 Megawatts (MW) of power during the blackout periods. When running at full power, San Onofre-3 produces 1120 MW of electricity. Had the reactor been operating, the blackouts almost certainly would not have occurred.
The accident occurred when a circuit breaker fault caused a fire—that lasted nearly three hours—a loss of offsite power and a reactor scram. A related failure of an oil pump resulted in extensive damage to the plant's turbine. The reactor is expected to be shutdown for repairs for at least three months. Although the utility claims no radiation was released and no nuclear safety issues were involved, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent a Special Inspection Team to the plant site to investigate the accident. The NRC met with SCE officials today to go over their findings. That team's report is expected to be publicly released soon.
"This serious accident, which has gone virtually unnoticed in the daily attention given to California's electricity problems, highlights the vulnerability of electrical systems that rely on nuclear power, and is a clear demonstration why atomic reactors can never be counted on to meet our energy needs. Not only have nuclear plants always been too costly, they are too unreliable as well," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), a Washington-DC based nuclear watchdog group. "When one of these large reactors goes down—and as reactors age, they will go down more often—large amounts of replacement power are needed—but are not always available. This situation is likely to worsen as time goes on, not improve."
In January, California's electricity shortage was prompted in part by a storm which washed large amounts of kelp into the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant's water intake system, forcing those two reactors to reduce power to 20% to avoid a potential meltdown accident.
"Using nuclear power to meet electricity needs is a lot like playing Russian Roulette," said Paul Gunter, chief of NIRS' Reactor Watchdog Project. "Most of the time you'll win, but when you lose, the results can be catastrophic."
NIRS was among the organizations that opposed California's deregulation law from the beginning, and supported a 1998 referendum that would have repealed that law. But California utilities spent $40 million to defeat the referendum, thereby ensuring their steady march toward bankruptcy.
"At the time, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison were eyeing some $25 Billion in 'stranded costs' charged under the deregulation scheme to California ratepayers to pay for San Onofre and Diablo Canyon," explained Mariotte. "Much of that money seems to have been distributed to their holding companies, and has not been used for the benefit of Californians. And the bailout certainly hasn't made their reactors any more reliable, nor any safer."
"Anyone who believes nuclear power is a way out of California's (or the nation's) energy problem should simply consider how much electricity could have been provided by safe, clean renewable energy and energy efficiency programs for the $25 Billion California spent on its unreliable nuclear reactors," concluded Gunter. "The choice is clear: we can meet our energy needs economically, or we can have nuclear power. We can't have both."
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