The Electrical Worker online
August 2013

Future Uncertain for Nuclear Workers as
San Onofre Nuclear Plant to Close
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A utility has announced the permanent closure of a nuclear power plant for the third time this year and more closure announcements are possible before the year is through.

On June 7, executives from Southern California Edison announced they would not reopen the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The plant, 60 miles north of San Diego, provides almost 2,200 megawatts of power, 4 percent of the state's total generation capacity. It was taken offline in January 2012 after a small leak of radioactive gas revealed unexpected damage to newly installed steam generators.

"When it's all said and done, maybe 5,000 union members, including between 125 and 150 IBEW members, will be out of work," said Diamond Bar, Calif., Local 47 Business Manager Pat Lavin.

Most workers at San Onofre are represented by the Utility Workers of America. The closure leaves only one nuclear power plant in the state, the Diablo Canyon plant owned by Pacific Gas and Electric on the central coast.

San Onofre joins the Crystal River plant in Florida, which Duke Energy closed in February after repairs for a 2009 construction accident proved too expensive to make. The Kewaunee Plant in Wisconsin was closed in May by Dominion Resources because company officials said it could not compete against a flood of inexpensive shale gas.

A Failed Repair, A Flawed Design

The twin cooling chambers of San Onofre have loomed above one of the most celebrated surf spots in Orange County for more than 40 years. The plant's first unit, Unit 1, ceased operations in 1992. Unit 2 was started in 1983 and Unit 3 started in 1984.

In 2010, Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, replaced the steam generators on Units 2 and 3. The generators are the largest components in the reactor and carry super-heated water from the core to the steam turbines that generate the power.

Edison came up with a novel design for the steam generators it hoped would keep the plant open for another 40 years. The repairs took nearly a decade and cost nearly $671 million.

Very quickly, however, the new equipment showed signs of trouble. In January 2012, a small leak of radioactive gas in Unit 2 forced the shutdown of both units, although the leak never left the containment unit and was too small to be a danger, according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation.

Inspections revealed more than 15,000 incidences of unexpected damage to more than 3,000 of the new cooling tubes in both units. Damage was so severe in Unit 3 that the fuel was removed from the reactor and Edison began decommissioning the reactor.

Edison officials believed that Unit 2 was salvageable and began repairs to the damaged steam generator. By September, nine months after the leak, Edison petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve a phased restart of Unit 2, with plans to bring it back online at 70 percent capacity and hold it there to test repairs.

Over the last 16 months, while waiting for the NRC's approval, Edison had to buy energy on the open market to replace San Onofre's output. Company officials put the total cost at half a billion dollars. They also said that keeping staffing levels ready to bring the plant online as soon as they got approval from the NRC cost an additional $30 million a month.

But a well-organized opposition movement led by the Friends of the Earth that included environmentalists, surfers, Sen. Barbara Boxer and anti-nuclear activists, challenged Edison's plan, voicing concerns that nuclear plants are not designed to run at less than 100 percent capacity.

"Nuclear power plants aren't like a car; you can't just ease off the accelerator," said Dave Mullen, International Representative in the Utility Department. "The core is designed to operate at 100 percent. The support equipment is designed to operate at 100 percent. It was never a slam dunk that Edison would win the challenge."

In May, the NRC decided that the phased restart was not allowed under the plant's operating license. The ruling did not close the door to Edison ultimately restarting the reactor, but the date of a final decision was now an unknown.

"If the NRC had ruled for Edison, it is possible the plant would have been running in a few months," Mullen said. "When they ruled for Friends of the Earth, the business case got a lot harder to make."

At the news conference announcing the closure, Edison International CEO Ted Craver said the NRC decision was a "definitive" moment in the decision to permanently shutter the plant.

Finding a Soft Landing for Employees

Edison officials did not announce a timeline for the decommissioning, but it is a lengthy process and will cost near $3 billion.

"This will take a long time. Everyone is not leaving tomorrow," Lavin said. "Decommissioning will take decades, but most of those jobs will be gone long before the job is done."

In the immediate future, unit representatives will begin negotiating worker protection packages. The last time Lavin said Local 47 was faced with a layoff like this one was in the '90s when energy deregulation forced utilities to sell off most of their fossil fuel power plants. Dozens of plants were sold, and while some employees were absorbed back into the utilities, the vast majority went to work for merchant generators, Lavin said.

"Local 47 negotiated deals that allowed folks close to retirement age to cash out their accounts and get lifetime health care," Lavin said. "For the rest, our local tried to get the best shot at a good position somewhere else."

Mullen said that the model worker protection package for nuclear workers was struck for employees of the Zion Nuclear Power Station outside Chicago when it was retired in 1998. IBEW representatives negotiated flexibility into retirement qualifications. Instead of hard requirements about worker age and years of service, they negotiated a "service credit" system, adding a worker's age to years of service.

There were also a few dozen jobs that remained at the station during decommissioning that negotiators were successful in keeping for employees closest to retirement. When a member of that small crew left their position, he would be replaced by another IBEW member close to retirement.

"It helped a bunch of guys," Mullen said.

Recent deals struck by nuclear workers at closing plants, however, have been less generous. Workers at Kewaunee, represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers, ended up with a deal that offered few enforceable protections against the use of contractors.

"In contracts the words 'shall' and 'must' really mean something," Mullen said. "You need them to be protected, and they didn't get them."

Lavin, who is also a member of the International Executive Council, said ideally some of the workers would find a home at Southern California Edison, where Local 47 already has about 6,300 members.

"They might be able to find their way into gas, wind or solar generation, but the sad reality is that a lot of these plants just aren't very labor intensive," Lavin said. "Some of the workers won't want to stay, and some of the workers won't have the skills to find another position. But for those who want to stay and have the skills, I'm optimistic."

There has been a moratorium on new nuclear construction since 1978 and California's energy deregulation program — which led to brown-outs and Enron-led price gouging a decade ago — forbids utilities from owning fossil fuel generating plants.

Replacing San Onofre on the Grid

The closure announcement of San Onofre leaves the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Station as the only carbon-emission free base load energy producer in California and punches a 2,200 megawatt hole in the electric grid, about 4 percent of California's total generation, enough for 1.4 million homes.

Just looking at the electricity output, however, doesn't capture the full importance of nuclear power plants on a grid. They need far less maintenance than natural gas or coal plants, run more reliably than renewables and due to unique characteristics of nuclear generation, serve to smooth out voltage delivery across the grid.

Because the average solar array produces only 20 to 35 percent of its rated capacity, replacing San Onofre's 2,200 megawatts with photovoltaic would require fields with the capacity to produce between 6,600 and 11,000 megawatts, far more than the total capacity of existing solar fields in the state.

Californians already pay 53 percent more for each kilowatt than the U.S. average, according to the Energy Information Administration, and energy prices in southern California are about 12 percent higher than in northern California.

But Lavin doesn't expect San Onofre's closure to bring California back to the bad old days a decade ago when the state was plagued with price spikes and brown-outs.

"We've never had electricity shortages in California except when Enron, NRG and Williams were scheming the market," Lavin said.

The California Independent Systems Operator, which coordinates, controls and monitors the operation of the electrical power system in the state, reports that 2,500 megawatts of new power sources were added since June 2012, with an additional 890 megawatts scheduled to be added this month.

In addition to the new generation, California built significant new transmission infrastructure in recent years. Edison alone is building seven transmission lines worth more than $5 billion, and in the last five years, completed transmission projects worth an additional $2.7 billion. The biggest project is the 500-kilovolt, 173-mile-long Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project currently underway that will route new and upgraded transmission lines and substations between Los Angeles County and the large wind and solar energy farms in the Central Valley.

"All this construction has been good for our outside members," Lavin said, "We just want to make sure there are enough energy generation jobs here in California for our brothers and sisters in construction and utility."


San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station's twin reactor cooling units have been offline since 2012 and will now be closed permanently.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user cgd_carma.


Front page of the San Diego Union-Telegraph after the closure announcement.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user osbornb.