LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal panel Monday sided with environmentalists who have called for lengthy hearings on a plan to restart the ailing San Onofre nuclear power plant — a decision that further clouds the future of the twin reactors.
The plant between San Diego and Los Angeles hasn't produced electricity since January 2012, after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of unusual damage to hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water.
The NRC has been considering whether to allow Unit 2 to restart and run at reduced power, which engineers from plant operator Southern California Edison believe will stop vibration that damaged tubing.
Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group critical of the nuclear power industry, argued that the plan to restart San Onofre's Unit 2 reactor is a change to the plant's operating license, which requires an extended, court-like hearing.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board agreed. The three-member board concluded that the restart would allow Edison "to operate beyond the scope of its existing license."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., praised the board's move, saying in a written statement that it was a "sound ruling setting a legal framework for a full public hearing before any final decision on the restart of the San Onofre nuclear power plant is made."
"It is a comfort to me that the safety board stood up for what is right," Boxer said.
There was disagreement, however, over the reach of the ruling, which came amid a series of complex investigations at the plant.
Friends of the Earth spokesman Damon Moglen said in a statement that the ruling is "a complete rejection of Edison's plan to restart its damaged nuclear reactors." The group said the reactors cannot be restarted until NRC "holds a formal license amendment proceeding with full public participation."
But a statement issued by the NRC characterized the ruling by the panel, an independent arm of the agency, as only a partial win for the environmental group.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the board found that the group hadn't provided enough information for the three-member panel to initiate a hearing and, accordingly, concluded its role in the case.
"They didn't give enough meat for the board to chew on," Burnell said. "At the same time the board says, 'Yes, there should be a hearing,' ... they said the hearing is terminated."
Burnell said a separate proceeding by NRC staff reviewing the restart plan will continue.