California Public Utilities Commission launches San Onofre investigation

Anti-nuclear activists make their case against San Onofre outside a California Public Utility Commission meeting in Irvine. Photo: Ben Bergman/KPCC

If you get your power from Southern California Edison, you could be paying slightly less for your electric bill soon.

The California Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday to open an investigation of costs associated with the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

A typical CPUC hearing isn’t a huge draw, but when San Onofre is involved, everyone wants to be heard. The Irvine City Council Chambers, where the commission met, wasn’t nearly big enough to accommodate everyone. Several overflow rooms were needed to handle the crowd that showed up to talk about whether Southern California Edison - the SONGS operator - should give its customers a rebate since San ONofre's two reactors have been offline since January.

When the vote was finally taken on a proposal to investigate costs at San Onofre, the tally was 5-0.

Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon said he hopes the investigation will bring clarity to who is financially responsible for the problems with the nuclear plant’s steam generators that put the Unit 2 and Unit 3 reactors out of commission after a small leak of radioactive steam.

“This order to institute an investigation on San Onofre is probably to some extent overdue,” Simon said. “It’s not easy to run a generation facility, particularly a nuclear generation facility. But the investigation will allow this commission to assess where the fault is resulting in the outages of units two and three.”

Many at the packed hearing voiced familiar arguments that the plant is too dangerous and should never reopen, or that it’s a vital and safe source of power to Southern California.

But whether to reopen the plant is up to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is reviewing Edison’s restart proposal now.

The Public Utilities Commission’s job is to investigate the costs.

“This is a very large and important facility and represents a significant financial investment with annual expenses of $650 million dollars a year,” said Commissioner Mark Ferron said. “Another very important part of our inquiry will be how to handle the SONGS-related costs since the outages.”

This is only the third time the commission has ordered an investigation of this kind. And it’s unusual that it would consider a retroactive refund, according to John Geesman, former member of the California Energy Commission and now an attorney with the watchdog group Alliance for the Nuclear Responsibility.

“Because Edison’s rate case is still pending, they have the legal authority to take that retroactive perspective,” Geesman said. “It’s a very good approach for them to take.”

Geesman says until the Commission decides otherwise, ratepayers will still be on the hook for San Onofre – about $10 a month per household.

Beyond the individual savings, he expects the Commission’s findings to help determine whether plant operator Edison still finds San Onofre cost effective.

“The real key from my perspective is whether the senior management at Edison, once they realize they’re playing with shareholder dollars rather than just something they pass through to ratepayers, will make faster decisions on San Onofre,” Geesman said.

Edison spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre cautions there are still a lot of steps from now until then.

“We’re going to look to insurance and warranties to recover these costs and there are just a lot of unknowns,” Manfre said.

The Public Utilities Commission promised its investigation would be “exhaustive.”

The whole thing is expected to take a year and a half, although the commission might decide well in advance whether ratepayers should pay less.

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