San Onofre Nuke Plant to Close Permanently

I don’t usually cover the California power system or nuclear generation on The Power Line, but I have been writing a lot about generation capacity lately.  We have seen just what a disaster nuclear power generation has been for Japan.  It took one earthquake to essentially wipe out nuke generation there.

Southern California Edison has now decided to permanently close its San Onofre plant on the California coast.  The plant is only forty years old.  Over the years, the plant has been plagued with leaks and breakdowns.  Citizens protested it heavily before the plant was built.  Turns out, they were right.

Nuclear power is heavily subsidized in the US.  US tax payers stand behind power companies in the event of a nuclear plant disaster, limiting the amount of damages power plant owners would have to pay.

But I wanted to write about the capacity issue here.

Power companies tell us that nuclear power is extremely reliable, because once nuke plants are running, it is relatively in expensive (when you factor in all the subsidies) to keep them running.  Except nuclear power generation has one terrible problem – it is extremely dangerous.  Despite lax regulation for decades, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must draw the line somewhere, and most nukes, particularly when they pass the age of 30, begin to have problems that even the NRC can’t ignore.

So what happens?  A nuke plant is running full bore, until it isn’t.  Once a plant is shut down, it leaves a huge whole in regional generating capacity.

Nuke plants are so expensive to build that most of them are very, very big.  Individual generating units at big coal burning plants can have a maximum output rating of 700 or 800 MW.  The two remaining units at San Onofre are each rated at over 1100 MW.  Unit 1 was forced to close in the 1990s.

So when the two units at San Onofre dropped off Southern California’s grid in January 2012, never to restart, that left a hole of over 2200 MW in one of the most energy hungry areas of the US.  And it happened all at once.  Grid managers had no time to adjust, they way they would to a planned shut down.

This Reuters story from last summer provides a clear illustration of how power companies have tried to confuse the impacts of the San Onofre collapse with expansion of renewable power.  Here are different sections of the same article:

CAISO is bracing for the heat wave and struggling to compensate for the loss of the 2,150-megawatt (MW) San Onofre nuclear power plant. That plant will be offline at least through the end of the summer, following a small radiation leak.

And:

The electric alert may serve as a reality check for state leaders and grid officials who are struggling to deal with increasing demands for more carbon-free electricity over the next few years.

California’s plan to dramatically increase reliance on renewable power sources, such as solar and wind, while shutting a number of ocean-side plants that supply power around the clock will challenge power grid operators to keep the lights on.

The electric alert may serve as a reality check for state leaders and grid officials who are struggling to deal with increasing demands for more carbon-free electricity over the next few years.

California’s plan to dramatically increase reliance on renewable power sources, such as solar and wind, while shutting a number of ocean-side plants that supply power around the clock will challenge power grid operators to keep the lights on.

But, of course, California’s plans for expanding renewable power have nothing to do with the shortage of capacity in Southern California.  The problem was that power companies and grid developers had bet the operation of the whole system on a technology that could disappear almost overnight, leaving the region dangerously short of capacity.

Renewable power sources can easily meet generation needs of Southern California.  That isn’t the problem.  The problem is that regulators and power companies made a big mistake relying so heavily on an uncertain and dangerous technology.

The Japanese learned that lesson in a very hard way following the Fukushima disaster, which remains a continuing disaster today.  Now it is Southern California’s turn.

The “challenge” to “power grid operators to keep the lights on” is not whether solar and wind power can do the job.  The real challenge facing grid operators is how and when they are going to end their dependence on big base load generators and transition their system to a much more reliable and stable system of renewables-based micro grids.

Update:

Here is an excellent account from US EIA about how CA ISO has responded to the hole in CA capacity left by the San Onofre shutdown.  Note that the EIA article has not be updated to reflect the final closure decision on the plant.

Note that much of the replacement capacity comes from renewable power sources, including geothermal.  Unfortunately, unwise reliance on the concentrated capacity of the San Onofre plant has also required new modifications to the transmission grid to increase transfer capacity and voltage support.

3 thoughts on “San Onofre Nuke Plant to Close Permanently

  1. Bill: This illustrates why West Virginia must continue to produce power in excess of consumption, AND encourage power generation from renewable sources. Though very half-baked, to my feeble mind, this means: 1) Solar large and small scale 2) Geo thermal 3) Small stream hydro that does not require large barriers across the flow 4) Waste incineration With the Least Cost Energy Bill that died in committee earlier this year, a meaningful net metering plan that actually pays consumers for placing power onto the grid, incentives to small producers to produce power, incentives to all consumers to reduce consumption, and the equivalent of a severance fee upon power sold outside West Virginia, there is no reason West Virginia cannot be one of the largest and most reliable suppliers of power in the Eastern US. Danny Lutz p.lutz007@gmail.com MOUNTAIN PARTY EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE 16th Senatorial District

    On Sat, Jun 8, 2013 at 9:51 AM, The Power Line

  2. I think some kind of collapse is inevitable in the next thirty years, given the realities of climate change and oil depletion, and that the powers that be are focusing essentially all resources for dealing with both problems on–PR and denial. If and when the grid goes down permanently, we can eventually adjust to a near absence of electric power—after all, all human generations up to our great grandparents lived without any electricity at all and apparently thought their lives worthwhile. But can we adjust to all those hundreds of nuclear power plants (and weapons)? I’m told there is no means of preventing meltdowns in the absence of fossil fuel power to cool the rods–burial would not suffice. So–we have a source of dangerous radiation surrounding every power plant, for millennia?
    James Hansen claims the fourth generation plants will eat all this leftover waste. If true–and if they’re safe and reliable–it might make sense to explore that possibility. But they said these were safe and reliable and cheap, none of which was true, so I’m skeptical.

  3. Read about Florida’s Crystal River nuke here. Florida allows for the power company to charge ratepayers for their botched repairs, expenses of the closing and construction of new plant! And they plan to just leave the plant in place with no clean up for 30 years! It is cheaper that way! Why is there a NRC if they can’t even make companies clean up? Or maybe it is just not possible to fix the mess we are in with nukes!?

    http://www.npr.org/2013/02/14/172020709/taxpayers-steaming-over-florida-nuclear-plants-shuttering

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