California Gets Coal for Christmas

SONGS Closure Produces Extra 18M Tons of Carbon Dioxide

California is getting a lump of coal for Christmas because it was naughty in shutting down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in San Diego this year. The lump of coal comes in the form of an extra 18 million tons of CO2 per year delivered to the atmosphere by replacing the 15 billion kWhrs of electricity each year with a mix of gas, wind, and solar. Also lost will be 1,500 local jobs and $50 million in lost revenue to Southern California each year (EIA, NEI).

This has not gone unnoticed, even by previously antinuclear folks and environmentalists who now admit we need nuclear (The Breakthrough Institute). The State is struggling to find a way to reach its energy and climate goals in the aftermath of losing SONGS, and is finding out that it cannot reach them without new nuclear builds.

Richard Harris (NPR) recently discussed studies that showed California’s carbon emissions actually increased more than 10 percent, in large part, because California shut down SONGS, one of its two remaining nuclear power plants.

A state-funded study by the California Council on Science and Technology found that only significant nuclear, or obtaining as-yet-undeveloped carbon capture technologies, can solve California’s energy demands and emission goals in this century (CCST Summary; CCST Report to 2050). We geologists know how unlikely carbon capture and storage is, and we should keep trying, but we can’t bet the house on unknown technologies.

Harris cited Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, as saying the shutdown of SONGS and the increased emissions was the reason he has reluctantly shifted from being an antinuclear activist to someone who now argues that we can’t afford to dismiss nuclear power.

But both are wrong when they say authorities did the right thing when they shut down the aging nuclear plant near San Diego. He’s not happy to see California lose a major source of low-carbon energy, but he doesn’t realize that SONGS did not have to shut down, it only needed to scale back about 10% of its output.

Just to recap the SONGS foolishness, three years ago Mitsubishi Heavy Industries sold four new steam generators to SONGS in which the steam generators installed for just one of the two SONGS nuclear reactors contained a manufacturing feature that resulted in a perfect pitch harmonic vibration at 100% steam flow. Vibration amplitudes were large enough in a few hundred steam tubes, out of nearly 10,000, to make contact between them. This unexpected vibration and contact resulted in one tube failing (SONGS Root Cause Analysis). No radiation or other safety issue is a concern with this type of problem, but that’s not what it sounded like in the press.

The other reactor was fine.

This vibration problem did not exist when the system was run at lower power and the unit could be run safely at 70% power.

All we had to do was decrease one reactor’s output by 20% to solve the problem, which would have dropped total output of SONGS by only 8%. So instead of putting out 15 billion kWhrs of electricity each year, SONGS could have put out over 13 billion kWhrs of low-carbon electricity each year. This could have been sustained for 20 years.

Instead, California now has to maintain a shuttered plant for at least that long that is not producing anything and can no longer even pay its taxes for storing its nuclear waste. The cost will, of course, probably be passed on to rate payers somehow.

But such a simple and obvious solution as running at the correct output was not acceptable. In fact, nuclear scientists and engineers (you know, the ones we train for decades to solve these types of problems) were shouted down so fast and so loud by politicos and activists with no understanding of the problem, you’d have thought it was Salem in 1692.

The bureaucratic hurdles alone make it almost impossible to implement any practical and prompt solutions to big problems, just look at Fukushima. It’s shameful that reasonable scientific and engineering fixes are no longer desired for addressing scientific problems. This new anti-science culture is not confined to nuclear issues or to a single ideology, but ranges the entire gamut of technical fields from infrastructure repair, to science education, to medical and basic scientific research.

It’s as though once the United States became the undisputed leader of the world, we suddenly had the luxury to be stupid. But it’s dangerous to assume we are immune to the long-term effects of dismissing the scientific and technological foundations that got us here in favor of fairy tales and ideologies.

Fortunately for California, low natural gas prices have kept electricity prices from increasing this year (Department of Labor), although the plan for using new gas, wind and solar as replacement sources will certainly increase prices in the years to come, as well as increasing CO2 emissions.

The scientific community has lots of solutions to lots of our problems. We just aren’t allowed to discuss them very much if they offend one group or another, so the country as a whole suffers. It’s not too late, we can still solve big issues, but I really don’t know how long we can maintain a scientific community that is more and more focused on gadgets and apps instead of understanding the real world and crafting a future that is both sustainable and ethical for humans and every other species.

A resolution to restart SONGS at the correct power output would make for a happier New Year.

James Conca has over 30 years of experience as a scientist specializing in geologic disposal of nuclear waste, energy-related research, subsurface transport and environmental clean-up of heavy metals. He is a contributor to Forbes, where this was originally published.