A special community public hearing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last Friday did nothing to clear up the immediate future of major electric generation sources in Southern California. Majority owner/operator of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs), Southern California Edison Co. (SCE), faced withering questioning from the NRC on its partial restart plan for Songs Unit 2.

Long-time and new anti-nuclear organizations in the area used the hearing to call for the total shut down of the 2,200 MW coastal nuclear plant, which has been idle since January (see Daily GPI, Feb. 7). The shutdown has left a big hole in baseload generation for the Southern California region, putting an increasing burden on the state’s predominant natural gas-fired generation fleet (see Daily GPI, Nov. 30).

There could be some partial relief for the gas fleet if the NRC approves a plan SCE submitted in October to restart Unit 2 at 70% of its power, operate it for five months during the coming summer and then shut it down for more detailed inspection and study. Meanwhile, Unit 3, which has been more heavily damaged in its steam generator tubing, will remain offline indefinitely.

The ultimate economic quandary if one or both the units require significant new investment to continue operating longer term has far-reaching ramifications for gas-fired generation, according to state energy officials, although a Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) white paper released late last month advocated a massive push for more energy efficiency and distributed generation.

Virtually ignoring natural gas, RMI’s report, “Reinventing Fire in Southern California: Distributed Resources and the San Onofre Outage,” concludes that the combination of bringing back two previously decommissioned gas-fired coastal generation units and relying on a new major transmission power line to bring in renewables from the southeast corner of the state may not be available next summer. Those two options provided the solution this past summer.

Edison International’s SCE utility has other related problems that don’t add up to a resolution of the Songs outage any time soon. Anti-nuke demonstrators allege that current radiation levels around the Songs plant have been elevated by the movement of an old steam generator that is being shipped by land several miles to a barge for salvage.

At the same time, SCE is being challenged by one of its unions, which is protesting the utility’s plans to eliminate 700 jobs at Songs. Simultaneously, the California Public Utilities Commission has launched a hearing into added charges resulting from the Songs outage.

The only certainty at this point is that California will continue to burn more gas for power generation, and SCE will spend tens of millions for make-up power supplies, most of which will come from gas-fired power on the spot market.

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