Hailing from Solana Beach to Riverside, about 60 people came here yesterday to argue against or support a proposed $813 million project to extend the life of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
California Public Utilities Commission member Geoffrey Brown was in town to get public comments on the price tag and environmental impact of replacing four worn-out steam generators at the plant.
What he got was a three-hour debate – or rather, a vent session – on whether nuclear power or renewable energy should dominate the state’s energy portfolio.
“I’m not so sure it’s the complete answer,” Brown said of nuclear power after the Oceanside meeting. “The question is whether it has a place.”
The town hall-style meeting at the Civic Center focused on the plant’s most expensive maintenance project ever: replacing the steam generators that convert water to steam to power turbines, because their tubes are cracking ahead of schedule.
Officials for the plant’s majority owner, Southern California Edison, have said new generators are needed to keep the two reactors from shutting down well before 2022, when their operating license expires.
But many of the people attending yesterday – grandparents, small-business owners, a pastor, a baker and others – expressed concerns that if the commission approves a proposed 2 percent average rate increase this fall, that will allow the plant to apply for a 20-year license renewal and operate until 2042.
They see opposing the rate case as a way to close the plant early and get the state and utilities to spend more money on such things as solar or wind power.
“If we don’t start now, if we keep putting back into projects that are already doomed, we’re taking away from those projects that could be successful,” said Maegan Prentice, 57, a video editor from Oceanside.
Others cited the environmental and safety benefits of closing the plant, which draws millions of gallons of seawater for operations and is surrounded by the cities of Dana Point, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Oceanside and the Camp Pendleton Marine base.
Supporters of the project, many of whom have spent decades in the nuclear industry, said there is no economical substitute for nuclear energy, that it burns cleaner than fossil fuels, and that the rate increase for electricity should be approved.
Al Tschaeche, 76, a retired nuclear health physicist for Lockheed Martin, said there is “absolutely nothing wrong with nuclear power.”
“I think we need to replace the steam generators at (San Onofre) so that the plant can operate longer and hopefully be re-licensed,” said Tschaeche, who lives in Encinitas.
Richard McPherson, a Laguna Niguel resident who has been in the nuclear industry since 1963, said the country needs more nuclear plants and described the rate increase as fair.
“I’m going to pay about as much a month for a Dove bar at the local convenience store,” said McPherson, 61. “To me, that’s a fair investment.”
Whether ratepayers in San Diego County will fund the project is still unclear because San Diego Gas & Electric Co., a part owner of San Onofre, doesn’t want to participate.
Brown, who held a similar meeting later yesterday in San Clemente, joked at times with the Oceanside audience.
“I would say this is really what democracy’s all about,” he said afterward.
The comments will go back with Brown to San Francisco for review by the other members of the Public Utilities Commission, which is awaiting a decision from an administrative law judge on the project’s price tag and environmental impacts.
A decision from the five-member commission could come by late fall.
If the commission approves funding for the generator replacement project, the earliest the equipment could arrive would be 2009.
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