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California nuclear plant to shut: a case of unforgiving nuclear economics

Southern California Edison is shutting the remaining two reactors at San Onofre, citing high repair costs and an NRC ruling that the utility says would delay reactor restarts.

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The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), a nuclear power plant set into the seaside bluffs in northern San Diego County, is closing after the high cost of repairs and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission board ruling prompted its owner, Southern California Edison, to pull the plug on the 45-year-old facility.

The announcement Friday that San Onofre’s two functioning reactors were being shut down brings to four the number of reactors that nuclear utilities have slated for closure since last November. Meanwhile, nuclear utilities have three new reactors on the drawing boards.

At least for now, "we're losing them faster than we're building them," quips David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer by training who focuses on nuclear-energy issues at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

In February, Duke Energy announced it was shutting down the reactor at its Crystal River power station in Florida after workers discovered a crack in the containment dome. The crack was created during efforts to replace a critical component of the reactor system that transfers heat to water in order to generate steam for the plant's turbines.

In early May, the utility Dominion shuttered its single-reactor Kewaunee nuclear plant in Carleton, Wis., a casualty of cheaper sources of electricity and an inability to build additional reactors to take advantage of what the company called economies of scale.

"Nuclear economics is tenuous at best," Mr. Lochbaum says. "If you do everything right, you can make money at this. But if you stumble, there's a big price to pay, and not just from a Fukushima-type tragedy."


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