Nuclear warfare: Nuclear backers, opponents present opposing ideas on San Onofre
By Dave Rice / San Diego Reader / December 5, 2012
The World Resources Simulation Center played host Tuesday evening to an open forum: “Green Scene – the Costs and Benefits of San Onofre Nuclear Power in our Backyard.” The Downtown-area Center, described as an “immersive visualization center,” outfitted with a dozen large-scale projectors and internet-equipped laptops scattered amongst the crowd, invited SDSU professor and 20 year nuclear industry veteran Murray Jennex along with Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility executive director Rochelle Becker to present contrasting ideas on the wisdom of attempting to resume power generation at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating System, which has been in a state of emergency shutdown for the last ten months.
Jennex was first to present before a decidedly hostile crowd.
“San Onofre is more than just a nuclear plant. It’s also a link in the power grid of Southern California, and it’s a lynchpin of how our grid works,” Jennex explained, making a case that its location and ability (when operating) to regulate a consistent flow of voltage is critical for the region’s power delivery system.
He further stated that during the lifespan of San Onofre up to 100,000 metric tons of smog-producing pollutants and 180 million metric tons of carbon emissions has been avoided, presumably when comparing to a coal or oil-fired plant of similar generating capacity. The plant also provides, Jennex said, 1,200-1,500 jobs and $120-150 million in wages for the local economy (an average wage of $100,000-plus for each employee), and he downplayed the dangers of storing spent nuclear fuel on the site, saying that most such fuel was reasonably safe.
“A dry cask is not really much of a barrier,” Jennex told the audience, referring to nuclear waste that has spent several years in a cooling pond surrounded by water before being moved to a more permanent mode of storage.
In this, and in other points made by Jennex concerning his confidence in the safety of nuclear power in general and the San Onofre plant specifically, including his suggestion that the plan by plant operator Southern California Edison to resume operation of one of the damaged reactors at 70% power was a reasonable solution, the audience rebelled. At one point early in the presentation activist Ray Lutz took exception to Jennex referring to nuclear power as “green energy” and delivered a scathing diatribe before walking out of the talk. Jennex continued to receive heckling from the crowd for the duration of his presentation.
Becker fared considerably better when her turn to present arose. She told attendees about her decision in 2005 to stop directly challenging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission based on the safety and environmental concerns surrounding nuclear energy after three decades of activism and instead focus her fight on California regulators and challenge the efficacy of nuclear power on a cost basis.
She then framed her argument against nuclear power largely on a cost basis, pointing out that utility ratepayers were already on the hook for $680 million worth of defective steam generators at San Onofre, which failed after less than two years and themselves had been installed after 20 years to replace generators that the plant originally claimed would last 40. If the generators were to need to be replaced again, the cost would soar to over $1 billion, Becker said.
Tack on another $1 billion-plus to design a new cooling system for the plant, she said, because the state is moving to ban the once-through cooling system used at the plant that Becker said killed hundreds of thousands of fish annually and millions of fish eggs. The new system would entail the construction of multiple 567 foot high towers along the coast to cool the water used to cool the nuclear reactors. Jennex referred to the 10 degree rise in ocean temperatures near the plant due to the current cooling system as “a boon to local marine life,” though he later revised his statement to specify that he was speaking about marine life other than fish.
Becker further went on to suggest that it could cost another $1 billion or more to indefinitely store nuclear waste at the San Onofre site, and another $1 billion in planning and training for emergency personnel to expand the existing 12 mile evacuation zone in the event of a plant disaster to 50 miles, which is the new U.S. recommendation following the Fukushima disaster and stretches as far as downtown San Diego.
“We have to recognize that San Onofre will never be economical,” Becker concludes.
On the issue of economics, Jennex attempted to find some common ground, stressing that although he was a firm believer in the safety and benefits of nuclear power, the question of whether to continue operating the plant was at its heart an economic one, and that a similar cost/benefit analysis had doomed the now-dismantled Unit 1 reactor at San Onofre in the early 1990s.
While Jennex remained optimistic that the plant could still have some economic utility for decades to come, Becker and the audience departed confident in their convictions that the economic life of coastal nuclear power in California has already expired.
Dave Rice is an OBcean and former writer for the OB Rag.