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  • Petr Zhilin

How California Killed a Nuclear Golden Goose - A Decade Ago

2012 looked to be a good year for SoCal Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). With most of their debts being paid off, it seemed San Onofre would earn its full license by 2022. Yet, on January 31, 2012, the brand-new Mitsubishi steam generators in Unit 3 burst a leak, and similar issues were found with other generators, albeit to a much smaller extent. As a result of the closure of San Onofre, California lost around 7% of its total electricity produced.

SCE and SDG&E tried many things to get the plant turned back on, but SCE eventually gave up and in June 2013 announced closure and decommissioning. Many environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club praised the decision, believing it to be a right step towards California’s carbon-free future. The real story of benefits is much more questionable, as California’s emissions rose by 37 million tons of CO2 and only started going back on the pre-2012 projections by 2015 – a full three years after the closure. Based on this study by the Haas Berkeley Energy Institute, the replacement of the electricity with natural gas also increased costs to California customers by 350 million dollars.

The greatest costs came from the decommissioning of the plant itself, with a deal with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that totaled 4.7 billion. The customers would pay 3.3 billion dollars, or 70% of the costs of shutting down, for a plant that still had a functional reactor (Unit 2) that did not face any major issues, and for SCE’s mistake.

There are many questions as to why Edison rethought plans and signed a deal to decommission so suddenly. There were many political steps taken during this process as well. With State Attorney General Kamala Harris launching an investigation but then concluding the statute of limitations had run out, Governor Jerry Brown earlier proposing a ballot initiative to limit nuclear development, and, eventually, even the California State Legislature taking steps to block future nuclear construction. Perhaps the closure, and approved payoff by taxpayers, was a coerced decision by decisionmakers.

Ultimately, with regard to San Onofre, the CPUC made the operating utilities:

● Build a 300-acre artificial reef costing 50 million dollars.

● Spend 3.6 million dollars on a White Sea Bass Hatchery in Oceanside.

● Install a fish barrier system.

● Restore at least 150 acres of wetlands.

● Install diffusers on all reactors.

All these changes truly put Reactor 1, a 462-megawatt reactor that had been operating since 1968, out of business just a year later. Even with all of these adjustments, which cost tens of millions of dollars, the State decided also to make San Onofre install cooling towers, despite one study from energy contractor Enercon demonstrating that it would cost 3 billion dollars to build and would reduce reliability, in exchange for virtually no environmental benefit.

While a lot of the environmental damage was indeed real, not a single other power station in Southern California ever faced this kind of scrutiny. In 1999, Edison spokesman Ray Golden said, “The truth of the matter is any generation of electricity is going to have environmental impacts. I know of no other power plant that has agreed to do the environmental mitigation that San Onofre is doing.”

With a better presentation of the facts surrounding California’s nuclear sector, it is quite apparent that it’s been marred by political maneuvering, questionable decisions, regulatory pressure, and various interest groups all trying to pressure the utilities into withdrawing from nuclear development. Perhaps nuclear power faces the blunt of California’s blows due to many political leaders’ personal ties to oil companies, such as former Governor Jerry Bown.

The reality is that due to politically motivated energy policy, people suffer. As a result of this closure and other energy policies in the state, prices per kwh went from 13.5 cents per kwh in 2011 to an average of 19.65 in 2021, while the price has increased for the average American from 9.90 to 11.0 cents per kwh within the same period.

Indeed, in the Golden State, not all glitters. Californians need to pay attention and learn the State’s real problems before it’s too late to fix them.



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