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Updated: San Onofre Power Plant Closed

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was permanently closed today, Southern California Edison announced.

“I didn’t think Edison would throw in the towel so early,” Arnie Gunderson, a 40-year former nuclear industry engineer and co-founder of the anti-nuclear nonprofit Fairewinds Energy Education Corp, said Friday at an impromptu press conference held on the frontage road at San Onofre where the two nuclear power generating domes loomed in the background.  The nuclear steam generators were shut down temporarily in January 2012 after radioactive steam leaked from worn water-transporting tubes inside one of the generators.

The announcement Friday by Edison, operator of the 40-year-old nuclear power plant located just above the renowned San Onofre surf break, came just three days after the former prime minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, publicly denounced the use of nuclear power at a press conference in San Diego.  Gunderson, along with Kan and former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, Gregory Jaczko, was one of five panelists speaking against the use of nuclear power at the press conference.

Calling for a nuclear-free California, Gary Headrick, co-founder of San Clemente Green, the grassroots advocacy group for sustainable resources that initiated public efforts to close San Onofre, gave credit to the anonymous players.

Although Headrick said he was grateful to “the big guys,” the advocacy legal group Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club, for providing legal, technical and financial help, the closure is a testament to the power of the people.  “This is a movement by the people,” he said, “and it’s an example of how we’re going to do the same thing in Diablo Canyon and throughout the world.  It was the people who worked at the plant who were so unselfish as to put their careers on the line and risk everything to make sure the public knew that those steam generators were not going in safely.  Whistleblowers rule.  We need more whistleblowers.  Keep it up.”

The leak came from a worn tube that was part of a replacement steam generator installed in 2010.  Friends of the Earth contended that the new steam generator constituted grounds for a license review process that would have opened up the installation to full investigation and public input. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, an arm of the NRC, sided with the environmental group last month by ruling that the proposed restart of the Unit 2 generator would require detailed public hearings. The NRC had been reviewing Edison’s plans to restart Unit 2 for the last eight months.

Gunderson said it takes about two years for ocean water near a nuclear power plant, which uses the water to cool the generators and is then returned to the ocean, to reach safe levels of lower contamination.  The sea water at San Onofre hasn’t been used at the plant for a year and a half.

Regulators allowed Edison to “make changes in a plan that never should have happened,” Gunderson said.  I think now the nuclear industry will realize that getting an $8 million modification approved is not going to be as easy as it used to be. Now owners will see that.  I think the nuclear industry is paying close attention to what happened here today.”

Gene Stone of Residents Organized for a Safe Environment, said he was elated but not yet ready to celebrate a victory.  “The easy part is over,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us to make sure it’s decommissioned properly to make sure the federal government, the NRC and the state regulators come together to decommission San Onofre in the best way possible for the citizens.  There’s no way in the world that we are going to allow this nuclear waste dump for 200 years.”

Stone said the NRC legally has 30 years to decommission a plant; Gunderson said it’s expected that the domes at San Onofre will be gone within 10 years.  “It’s a big demolition project,” he said.

The next concern, said the watchdogs, who gathered at the plant after Friday’s surprise announcement, is the 1,400 tons of nuclear waste, known as spent fuel, being stored at the Edison plant, which can be more toxic than the nuclear fuel once generated there. “A thimbleful of plutonium,” said Headrick, “could take out San Clemente. To think we have 1,400 tons of it here is a much bigger threat.”

Headrick said dry-cast storage is preferable to the pools now being used to cool and store the spent fuel, which takes from four to five years to cool.  “That will buy us about 200 to 300 years until we find a permanent solution,” he said.

Other activists said keeping the plutonium-laden spent fuel near fault lines and the ocean is too risky and they will push for its safe removal.

Edison, operator of the plant for the last 40 years, said today that the uncertainty about when or if the plant would be restarted didn’t make economic sense to customers as well as investors and made planning for future electricity requirements difficult.

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