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Lengthy review possible at damaged Cal nuke plant

Associated Press Modified: October 8, 2012 at 10:45 pm •  Published: October 8, 2012

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. (AP) — Federal regulators disclosed Monday that the proposed restart of the long-shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant in California could lead to an exhaustive review that might last months or even years.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering if the complex proposal submitted by operator Southern California Edison last week to repair and start the damaged Unit 2 reactor will require an amendment to San Onofre's operating license, Regional Administrator Elmo Collins told reporters.

Such reviews can involve a thicket of public hearings, appeals and commission actions on safety and design issues that can take as long as two years to complete.

In a March letter, federal regulators outlined a series of benchmarks Edison must reach to restart the plant, including determining the cause of vibration and friction that damaged scores of steam generator tubes, how it would be fixed and then monitored during operation.

Those requirements, however, did not involve amending the plant's operating license.

Collins said Edison contends an amendment is not needed, and NRC officials have indicated previously that a staff-level review of the restart plan could be completed within months.

It's "an open question" if a license amendment is needed, Collins said during a news conference. "It's a possibility. I'm not saying yes or no."

Edison spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre said in a statement Monday that the company "will not restart Unit 2 until the NRC states it is safe to do so."

"We have submitted our ... restart plans. SCE won't speculate on what the NRC would determine to be necessary in that evaluation," she said.

The problems at San Onofre center on four steam generators that were installed during a $670 million overhaul in 2009 and 2010.

Anti-nuclear activists have argued for months that restarting the plant, located between San Diego and Los Angeles, would invite catastrophe. About 7.4 million Californians live within 50 miles of San Onofre's twin domes.

In government filings, Friends of the Earth has asserted a license amendment, rather than an NRC staff review, is needed to protect safety and transparency. Critics have also charged that Edison should have sought a license amendment when it replaced the generators, which they claim would have uncovered problems with vibration the led to unexpected tube wear.

"We got into the current situation because Edison bypassed the license amendment process when it replaced the steam generators," said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is a critic of the nuclear power industry. Restarting the plant "without a full adjudicatory hearing that a license amendment would permit would just repeat that mistake."

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