Growing up, I used to race my station wagon down country roads, pushing the limits of the engine, my safety and bystanders' safety on the road beyond reason. It was stupid. Fortunately, I learned several lessons about a car's engine.
First, when your car's engine light starts flashing without warning; clouds of steam rise from under the hood; the needle on the temperature gauge sticks in the red zone -- stop the car.
Second, if you hear clunking and vibrations from the engine -- stop the car.
In both instances, I decided to run the car anyway and ended up replacing a blown engine. Costing money and needlessly putting lives, including my own, at risk.
Unbelievably, Southern California Edison is faced with a similar decision with its crippled San Onofre nuclear power plant on the coast in Orange County. The reactors have already released radioactive steam and are literally shaking themselves apart. Instead of keeping the reactors shut down, Southern Edison is rushing to restart the reactors and running them as hard as possible.
San Onofre's twin reactors have been shut down since January, after leaks developed in some of the thousands of thin, tightly packed tubes that carry radioactive steam from the plant's generators -- crucial components that were meant to last for decades but failed after less than two years of operation. As the Associated Press reported, Edison gambled more than half a billion dollars -- costs it passed on to its customers -- on a new generator design in an attempt to increase the power produced by the reactors.
Since then, Edison has failed to provide the detailed technical information required by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide if and when the reactors can be restarted. Instead, Edison is pushing for a restart as early as next month. The utility insists that San Onofre can be operated safely if some of the faulty tubes are plugged and the reactors are run at reduced power.
A new report (PDF) commissioned by Friends of the Earth found that the design of the generators themselves is faulty -- a problem that could have been detected if Edison had allowed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to properly review its plans before the new generators were installed. The report by Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer of 40 years' experience, found that plugging tubes and restarting the reactors at reduced power won't solve the problem -- and could make it worse, risking a catastrophe that would endanger the 8-million-plus people who live within 50 miles of the reactors and millions more beyond. Friends of the Earth is working with communities and activists throughout southern California to try to avoid such a disaster and to demand no restart of the San Onofre reactors.
City councillors in southern California are drawing the same conclusions about the risks of operating San Onofre, stating that common sense tells you that a dangerous reactor at 100 percent power remains dangerous at 50-80 percent power. For those reasons and more the City of Irvine Council -- representing a population of more than 200,000 and located less than 22 miles from the nuclear reactors -- has called on the NRC to not approve an early restart of the reactors unless it can guarantee no repeat of the problems in the generators.
We've also released a new ad (below) sounding the alarm about Edison's risky scheme, urging concerned Californians to contact U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Sen. Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has already stepped up, asking the NRC and Edison by May 21 to produce documentation about what Edison knew about the new generators' design and whether the agency adequately reviewed them.
Edison has raised the spectre of blackouts this summer if San Onofre, representing half of the nuclear power capacity in the state, remains shut down. This is an irresponsible threat. The agency that manages the state's power grid says blackouts can be avoided through energy conservation. San Onofre must remain closed so that California can move toward a clean and safe energy future.
Follow Erich Pica on Twitter: www.twitter.com/foe_us