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Troubled Calif. nuke plant aims to restart reactor

Associated Press Modified: October 4, 2012 at 6:32 pm •  Published: October 4, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Eight months ago Southern California had a nuclear power plant that could generate enough electricity for 1.4 million homes. It might never be the same again.

Southern California Edison sketched out a proposal Thursday under which its long-shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant might be stuck, perhaps permanently, in a sort of middle gear.

The company announced plans to repair and restart one of two damaged reactors, Unit 2, at reduced power to hopefully halt vibration that has caused excessive wear to scores of tubes that carry radioactive water. The outlook for its heavily damaged sister, Unit 3, appears grim and no decision on its future is expected until at least next summer.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to take months to review the plan, and there is no timetable to restart the plant.

San Onofre, located between Los Angeles and San Diego, was long an anchor in the Southern California power supply. That clearly will change, with one reactor offline for an indefinite period and the other possibly running at no more than 70 percent power, at least initially.

With San Onofre dark, state officials patched together enough power last summer to fill the gap and avoid potential blackouts. Plans are already taking shape that envision lower output from San Onofre at least into 2013.

"Whenever you lose generation, it has implications," said San Diego Gas & Electric spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp. Contingency plans are being discussed by regional power and utility officials that could lead to new or upgraded transmission lines or power generation to account for limited or no power from San Onofre.

In the power-hungry region "the partial restart of the unit is helpful, however grid reliability risks in Southern California do not go away," said Stephanie McCorkle of the California Independent System Operator, which manages much of the state's power grid. "It remains unclear if Unit 2 will be available during the (2013) summer peak demand period and Unit 3 is offline indefinitely."

Company executives have left open the possibility that the generators in Unit 3 might be scrapped.

"The circumstances they are dealing with obviously are novel," said John Keeley, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. "The technical challenge here is distinctive, there is no question about that."

The trouble began Jan. 31, when the Unit 3 reactor was shut down as a precaution after a tube break. Traces of radiation escaped at the time, but officials said there was no danger to workers or neighbors. Unit 2 had been taken offline earlier that month for maintenance, but investigators later found unexpected wear on hundreds of tubes inside steam generators in both units.

The problems center on four steam generators that were installed at San Onofre during a $670 million overhaul in 2009 and 2010. Tests found some tubes were so badly corroded that they could fail and possibly release radiation, a stunning finding inside the nearly new equipment.

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 tubes, and how it would be fixed and then monitored during operation.

Edison's plan calls for operating Unit 2 at reduced power for five months, then shutting it down for inspections. Company officials expressed confidence in the proposal, which followed more than 170,000 tube inspections over more than eight months.

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