The fate of one of two major nuclear power plants in California remained uncertain at year-end as federal regulators are prodding the operator of the idle 2,200 MW San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs) for more analysis of the steam generator tubing problems that have kept Songs’ two units shut down for nearly a year.

For California energy planners and regulators, the uncertainty leaves a big question mark regarding whether the state should develop more natural gas-fired generation plants or continue to rely on increased purchased power to replace the large Songs supplies.

As a request from Songs’ majority owner/operator Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) seeks to restart Unit 2 and run it at partial capacity, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has written the utility seeking more detailed technical analyses of the situation and whether the problem tubing could be counted on if the unit operated at full capacity. The NRC must approve any restart of the plant.

If both units (2 and 3) remain offline at Songs, the pressure grows for finding both interim and long-term solutions, and gas-fired generation is a major option, although some renewable energy advocates have recently said efficiency and renewables can help fill in the gap caused by Songs being offline (see Daily GPI, Nov. 30).

In February the state grid operator, the California Independent System Operator, reported that thermal generation from other sources jumped by more than 1,000 MW as a result of Songs’ two units being down (see Daily GPI, March 7). Unit 3 was shut down on a precautionary basis when a small leak in one of the unit’s steam generator tubes was discovered at the end of January. Two days later damaged tubing was discovered at Unit 2, which was in the midst of planned maintenance.

A regional NRC spokesperson confirmed that the agency sent a letter Wednesday regarding Unit 2 being able to meet a “full range of normal operating conditions,” including maintaining the structural integrity of its tubing, if the unit was operating at maximum capacity. A spokesperson for SCE said the utility will provide additional information as requested, but the additional work leaves additional uncertainty on when the NRC might give the OK to resume the one unit at Songs on a partial basis.

Separately last Friday, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board denied a request from a local activist group, Citizens Oversight, for a hearing to challenge SCE’s proposal to amend some of the “technical specifications” governing Songs. (The board is a quasi-judicial panel of three judges who are independent of the Commissioners and of the NRC staff.)

The board ruled that Citizens Oversight had failed to articulate any challenges or “contentions” that meet the NRC’s legal threshold for convening an evidentiary hearing. The issue dates back to August when the NRC issued a notice that SCE had asked to amend Songs’ licenses.

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