State panel to investigate troubled San Onofre nuke plant

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IRVINE, Calif. — The California Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday to initiate a formal investigation into the nine-month outage at the San Onofre nuclear plant, which could result in rates eventually being lowered or money refunded to customers of the energy companies that own the plant.

The California Public Utilities Commission has launched an investigation The five commissioners voted unanimously to launch the probe at its meeting Thursday in Irvine.

Commission President Michael Peevey promised that the investigation of the darkened plant — on the coastline south of San Clemente — will be “exhaustive.”

The probe will look at the costs of the long-running outage, which resulted from defective replacement steam generators at the plant, and at the potential cost to ratepayers from repairs as well as scenarios in which one or both reactors never come back online.

According to the order adopted by the commission, ratepayers are paying more than $1.1 billion a year in costs related to the troubled plant.

The outage could add to that tab with the cost of studying the problem, repairs, replacement power and potential litigation between plant operator Southern California Edison and steam generator manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Edison has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart one reactor, where the issues were less severe, at partial power. The NRC must give approval before the plant can fire up again.

“Our primary responsibility is to look at the rate issues, and also look at the system,” said CPUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval. “How do we maintain safe and reliable power for Southern California at just and reasonable rates?”

The panel heard from dozens of local residents concerned about the safety and costs of restarting the plant or about the possibility of rate increases if the plant remains offline, forcing co-owners Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to obtain power elsewhere.

The vote is just the first step in a lengthy process. Under the timeline set for the investigation, it might not conclude until the latter half of 2014.

The vote to open the probe was somewhat of a foregone conclusion, as state law requires the commission to launch an investigation if a power generating facility has been out of commission for nine months.

The commission has launched only three such investigations before, and none in the last decade.

The most recent case, involving an outage at a hydroelectric project that was knocked out of commission by a New Year’s Day storm in 1997, was decided in 2002, with the commission approving a settlement between PG&E and PUC’s ratepayer advocate division. The final decision reduced electric rates by $810,000 plus interest.

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