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Under the Dome

Good and bad tidings loom for the nuclear-power industry in California. On the one hand, a new Field Poll suggests that 60 percent of Californians want more nuclear-power plants to help ease the energy crunch, a stunning turnaround from the populace‘s previous opposition. On the other hand, there are still problems with one of the nuclear plants we already have. The return to service of one of the two reactors at Southern California Edison’s San Onofre plant has been delayed again, bringing the cost to the state for replacement power to more than $1 billion. And there are new revelations about the accident that forced the reactor offline.

The San Onofre reactor, located on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego, had been offline since the beginning of the year for maintenance and refueling. It was in the process of being brought back online when, on February 3, the accident occurred. The reactor produces 1,120 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.1 million households, and was lost when an exploding electrical circuit breaker caused a fire. The blaze, which did not affect radioactive materials, led to a power interruption and sudden system shutdown of Unit 3. (Unit 1 was decommissioned in 1992; Unit 2 remains online.)

Three backup power systems -- two alternating-current power supplies and a direct-current battery -- failed in the process. The power failure within the plant knocked out a lubricating oil pump, the loss of which caused serious damage to a massive turbine. One 200-ton rotor was so badly damaged that it had to be shipped by special rail car to Virginia for repair by its manufacturer.

when The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released its long-awaited report on the February 3 accident, it was a very quiet release. Last month, NRC spokesman Breck Henderson cautioned, “We will not issue a press release to announce the completion of the inspection report,” due, he said, to the highly technical nature of the findings. The NRC found that Edison had violated safety regulations at San Onofre, but chose not to cite the beleaguered utility.

Commenting on Edison‘s NRC safety violation, Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear-safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said that the operators had failed to realize that the regulating valve between two tanks that supply water to steam generators failed to close following loss of electrical power. “Consequently,” Lochbaum said, “the first tank was soon overfilled. The vault surrounding the tank was flooded with 12 feet of water. The back-up tank was rendered unavailable because the valves that needed to open to enable its water to be used were now underwater.”

The NRC reasoned that because the reactor was still being powered up when the accident occurred, it had been in no real danger. Of at least equal interest was the NRC’s finding that Edison personnel had not been properly trained to deal with fires.

Indeed, the NRC report reveals that the fire, which caused the sudden reactor shutdown, lasted for at least three hours, which is far longer than previously disclosed. The initial brief news report based on information from Edison, had the fire lasting 10 to 15 minutes; the Weekly later established that it had lasted at least 30 minutes. But the NRC report reveals that the fire continued in a cubicle for much longer, frustrating repeated efforts to put it out with portable extinguishers before the Fire Department succeeded with sustained water flow, a tactic the plant‘s manager had resisted because of all the electrical equipment involved.

When will Unit 3, the absence of which has already led to two days of rolling blackouts in the L.A. area, finally be back online? Edison initially said it would be in mid-February, then, under questioning, set later deadlines, the latest of which was June 15.

But that deadline, too, will pass; the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s electric-power grid, says the plant won‘t be back until July 1. (Others say it will be still later; the company repairing the giant rotor, Alstom Corporation, wouldn’t comment.) The latest San Onofre delay will cost California, which is buying replacement power for the nearly bankrupt Edison utility on the exorbitant spot market, another $120 million to $160 million on top of the billion dollars the state is already on the hook for.

“This is the biggest nuclear-power story in years,” says author and Greenpeace senior adviser Harvey Wasserman, “but the corporate media is ignoring it. It‘s outrageous.” The administration of Governor Gray Davis, whose closeness to Edison is evidenced by the very sweet but still languishing bailout deal he cut with the utility, and by the cadre of current and former Edison executives and consultants who have made it onto his energy team, has also kept mum about the San Onofre crisis.

Like other activists, Wasserman is frustrated by such lapses, especially in light of the new Field Poll showing sudden widespread support for nuclear power in California. Of course, most Californians don’t know about the San Onofre accident, its central role in the blackouts and its enormous cost to the state. And there is even a catch to the poll: Respondents are never actually asked if they want nuclear plants built in California, or if they‘d live near one.