The Madeleine Brand Show for April 5, 2012

A look at the future of the San Onofre nuclear power plant

David McNew/Getty Images

A shot of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant.

The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will tour the troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Clemente, Calif. Friday. The plant has been shut down since Jan. 31, when a tube that carried radioactive water broke, allowing traces of radiation to escape.

Last week, the NRC announced the plant would remain closed indefinitely while investigators tried to determine what caused the unusual wear to the tubing. KPCC Orange County reporter Ed Joyce joins the show to discuss what’s next for the power plant and how California’s energy supply will be affected by a prolonged shutdown.

According to Joyce, NRC's move to visit the power plant is unusual. He said permanent NRC inspectors are always stationed at facilities, but the NRC brought in more inspectors to deal with the issue.

"I think it signals just how seriously the NRC is taking this investigation," he added. "I would say it's part of the NRC and Southern California Edison getting on the same page to highlight that safety is their primary concern."

The NRC and Southern California Edison are still analyzing but they have no idea what's causing the problem, he explained.

Dr. Murray Jennex, who was once a nuclear engineer at San Onofre and now teaches at San Diego State University, said that these tubes vibrate as they transfer the water from the reactor, kind of like a guitar string. That vibration could have caused the tubes to rub against each other and other parts of the machinery, wearing them down.

Edison and NRC have no timeline for restarting the plant as they continue to analyze damaged tubes. So far, of over 20,000 tubes at the plant, the problems have been with 1,000 or fewer. Joyce said that prolonged closure could cause energy shortages during the warmer seasons.

"The main need for the plant is when power use climbs in the summer – air conditioning use climbs," he explained. "No question it would be a serious problem depending on power needs and summer heat."

According to Joyce, there may be "Flex alerts," where utilities request that residents and businesses reduce their energy usage on a voluntary basis. There's also talk of firing up a retired unit at the gas-fired plant in Huntington Beach, also operated by Southern California Edison.


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