The announcement that San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) will be permanently closed is big news that will have wide-ranging impacts upon San Diego’s energy future. This announcement isn’t necessarily all bad in that SONGS is a technological dinosaur that was proving expensive to preserve. However, that silver lining will be darkened by some very major clouds. Its closure will prove to be expensive and create a high degree of uncertainty about power reliability for the coming years. While state regulators and the utilities are putting on a brave face, they know very well that any major wildfires, heat waves or unexpected plant closures in the coming summers will likely lead to outages. More importantly, the Southern California transmission network has been designed with San Onofre serving as an anchor for much of the region’s transmission flow. As a result, the transmission system will require a major redesign — an expensive proposition to be sure.
On the cost side of the ledger, the closure will lead to higher electric rates — perhaps by hundreds of millions of dollars. San Onofre was one of the lower-cost Southern California generation resources given that its high upfront costs were largely depreciated. New power plants will need to be built to make-up for the closure and the power they produce will be more expensive than San Onofre-generated power. There will also be the costs of shutting down the SONGS plant.
Ultimately, the closure of the plant may have been justifiable. Its operational future was too questionable in light of the botched 2009 overhaul. But its closure will be felt in Southern California residents’ pocketbooks and, if power outages occur, perhaps beyond SoCal borders. SDG&E, which owns a 20 percent stake in San Onofre, has asked California regulators to allow it to recover its $519 million investment from ratepayers, according to BusinessWeek. That’s not a good sign.
To add to the bad news: the state regulator that oversees SONGS operations issued an ominous press release this morning. For those who don’t read regulatory speak, here’s an interpretation in plain-speaking English: “Uh oh. The #@!!$# is hitting the turbines. We sure hope the CAISO has this under control, but we know there’ll be some major transmission-construction bills coming our way. And for all of you who are celebrating the closure, you better cut a deal with SCE about how to replace SONGS because if you don’t, you won’t like our solution.”
Yet more bad news: while SONGS may be dead, its toxic trove of radioactive waste will be alive and kicking for the next few thousand years or so. The SONGS station not only is home to some now moth-balled generation stations but also 1400-odd tons of spent nuclear fuel. Over 1,000 tons of the rods sit in storage pools that are not seismically safe. (Can anyone say “Fukushima?”) Moreover, the U.S. has no place to store spent fuel so there is nowhere else to store the spent rods for the present time.
The lawyers and regulatory experts will be padding their bank accounts, but electric customers for SCE, SDG&E and Riverside will be footing the bill for the upcoming bureaucratic bash. Hopefully the argumentative assemblage will explore the feasibility of transforming the SONGS station into a renewable energy farm using solar, wave energy and some high-efficiency natural gas generation and utilizing the costly transmission infrastructure that is in place.