Even after the fiasco that led to the permanent shutdown of his company’s San Onofre nuclear power plant, Edison International Chief Executive Theodore Craver is willing to go nuclear again.
He still believes nuclear power plants are an essential component of the nation’s energy future. He told the Business Journal last week that he even foresees the day when Edison will once again invest in nuclear power – but not in California.
“I do see a future for nuclear power in this country,” Craver said. “It remains the only power source that can deliver steady supply while not producing carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.”
However, Craver said Edison had no immediate plans to jump back into the nuclear game. And he noted that the days are numbered for massive power plants on the scale of San Onofre, which produced more than 2,200 megawatts of power, enough to supply about 1.4 million single-family homes and about 9 percent of the region’s total power generation.
Instead, he said, new designs are being tested that could result in smaller, more modular power plants.
“I would be interested in where some of these new technologies are taking nuclear,” he said.
Craver said Edison will not be developing nuclear power in California for two reasons.
First, he said, there’s a law that prohibits any new nuclear investment until a permanent solution can be found for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear plant rods. A proposal for long-term storage underground near Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada has died. No new permanent storage facility has been proposed and given the politics, none is likely.
However, even if that obstacle were overcome, Craver said California politics prevents development of any new nuclear plants. He cited the power of anti-nuclear forces in the state, clout that was on display in the yearlong saga that led to the decision to close San Onofre.
Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at USC, doesn’t see any real prospects for new development of nuclear power plants in the near term, chiefly because of cheap natural gas prices. And even if regulation of hydraulic fracturing drives up natural gas prices, Meshkati said the nuclear power industry has to make sure it’s perceived as safe before new plants could be built.
“Right now, the poor safety culture is the straw that threatens to break the industry’s back,” he said. “The industry needs to improve its safety culture and then, just as important, convince the public that it has improved its safety culture.”
However, last year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did approve two new reactors each at existing nuclear power plants in Georgia and South Carolina.
Edison’s crisis began when a steam generator tube leaked Jan. 31 of last year. That prompted the shutdown of the reactors at San Onofre and would cost the company more than $1 million a day to try to reopen the plant and to buy replacement power. Craver said the company determined that if a firm decision could not be reached on reopening the plant by the end of this year, it would no longer be cost effective to do so, since the plant’s license expires in 2022.
“Given its slow progress and the political dynamics at work, we didn’t see how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would come to a firm yes or no decision by the end of this year,” Craver said. “And even if they did, the anti-nuclear groups had a pretty open field to seek stay motions and appeal the commission’s decisions to the federal courts. So we just didn’t see how that was ever going to get resolved within the time frame of the end of this year. It wasn’t the decision I wanted to come to, but it was the only reasonable decision we could make under the circumstances.”
Craver said the timing of the plant malfunction couldn’t have been worse, coming just 10 months after a massive quake and tsunami that led to the partial meltdown and massive radiation leak at the Fukushima plant on Japan’s Pacific coast.
The Tokyo Electric Power Co. initially spent more than $25 billion to deal with the Fukushima disaster and then required an additional $10 billion injection of cash from the Japanese government, prompting the government to effectively take over the utility. As of last week, radiation from the crippled plant was still leaking into the sea.
“We knew that we had to proceed very carefully, with safety first,” Craver said. “If we had tried to move quickly to get the plant online, without all the safety precautions, we would have risked a more serious problem and that would have meant the end of Edison as a company.”
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