California utility to close troubled nuclear plant

The owners of Southern California’s San Onofre plant announced Friday they are shutting it down for good after the discovery of damaged equipment led critics to charge it could never operate safely again.

The twin reactors — situated along the Pacific Coast in the densely populated corridor of millions of people between San Diego and Los Angeles — would be the largest to shut down permanently in the United States in the past 50 years, federal officials said.

Southern California Edison’s decision brings to a sudden end a dispute that began in January 2012, when a small radiation leak led to the discovery of unusual damage to hundreds of virtually new tubes that carry radioactive water. The plant hasn’t produced electricity since then.

Edison has already spent more than $500 million on repairs and replacement power, and had hoped to restart one reactor this year and run it at reduced power to eliminate the vibrations that had damaged the tubing. But the utility was facing a snarl of regulatory hurdles, investigations and mounting political opposition.

Ted Craver, chairman of SCE parent Edison International, said in a statement the company concluded that “continuing uncertainty about when or if (the plant) might return to service was not good for our customers, our investors or the need to plan for our region’s long-term electricity needs.”

San Onofre, which opened in 1968, was capable of powering 1.4 million homes. California officials have said they can make it through the hot season without the plant as long as the summer is uneventful, but warned that wildfires or another disruption in supply could cause power shortages.

Environmentalists celebrated outside the front gates of the beachfront plant, and a pack of bicyclists shouted, “Shut it down!” as they went past.

Gary Headrick of San Clemente Green likened the news to births of his children: “The joy and the relief is comparable to something that big in my life, to know that 8 million people will be safe now from this supposed restart.”

It wasn’t clear how electrical production from the plant would be replaced permanently. The California Public Utilities Commission said it will work with governments to ensure Southern California has enough electricity, which could require increased energy efficiency and conservation, as well as upgrades to equipment.

Mitsubishi Nuclear Energy Systems, which built San Onofre’s steam generators, said it is disappointed with the shutdown decision and remains confident the plant can be operated safely.

Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group critical that was waging a battle to block the restart, praised the decision to close it.

“We have long said that these reactors are too dangerous to operate, and now Edison has agreed. The people of California now have the opportunity to move away from the failed promise of dirty and dangerous nuclear power and replace it with the safe and clean energy provided by the sun and the wind,” the group’s president, Erich Pica, said in a statement.