Business groups and anti-nuclear activists squared off before a judge and commissioner from the California Public Utilities Commission Thursday over whether Southern California Edison can charge customers for costs related to its embattled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
The forum is the latest in dozens of governmental hearings and meetings that over the past year that have spanned local, state and federal agencies. A January 2012 steam leak shuttered the plant and revealed thousands of faulty components -- problems related to design flaws in the plant's newly installed steam generators. Adding to the company’s troubles, a Massachusetts Congressman called on the Security and Exchange Commission Thursday to investigate whether Edison violated federal securities laws by withholding from investors information on the faulty steam generators.
The massive fight over the engineering failure and the safety and economic concerns surrounding the plant continued at the Costa Mesa Community Center Thursday.
Business groups and organizations like the Orange County Business Council, Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce lined up in support of the partial and speedy restart of the plant as proposed by Edison. The plan is currently under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but no federal decision is expected until the end of April.
"Orange County enjoys some of the lowest unemployment in the state," said Bryan Starr, and executive with the Orange County Business Council. "If not SONGS, then what? What are the alternative sources of energy that could power our businesses immediately? Broad statements about alternative power aren't going to cut it."
Those fighting for a permanent shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station include activists from organizations like San Clemente Green, San Diego's Citizens Oversight Committee and the national Friends of the Earth group.
Safety and health concerns have dominated the anti-nuclear activists' public message to-date, but the individual groups have organized together and adapted their protests to focus on financial problems for the benefit of the CPUC hearings. Signs in the hearing audience read, "Cut our losses; not a penny more to Edison."
Grace VanThillo, a San Clemente resident demanded her money back.
"We ratepayers should not be paying hundreds of millions of dollars for Edison's mistakes," she said. "In fact, the ratepayers deserve hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds for Edison's mistakes we've already paid for."
Ratepayer advocate organizations like The Utility Reform Network are calling for refunds to ratepayers, who continue to pay for upkeep and replacement power purchasing for the shuttered plant.
"The Utility Reform Network stands for affordable bills and accountable utilities," said group spokeswoman Mindy Spatt. "That means accountable for their mistakes, and Edison made a colossal one. If Edison's steam tubes are faulty, then that's Edison's problem. Customers should not have to pay a single penny for costs incurred for an inoperable nuclear plant."
A Utility Reform Network press release states that Edison has collected $115 million from ratepayers since 2010 when the last of four new steam generators were installed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, "$46 million of which went to shareholder profits."
Local elected officials have split on the issue. Some city councils have adopted resolutions expressing grave concerns about the continued operation of the plant, such as the city of Del Mar and the San Diego Unified School District Board. Others, like the mayor of Newport Beach Kieth Curry and Fountain Valley Councilman Steve Nagel spoke in favor of a plan to reopen the plant.
Edison and Regulators Under Fire
The process to decide whether Edison owes customer refunds will likely take months, CPUC officials say. In the meantime, Mitsubishi, who nuclear inspectors determined made major design mistakes in constructing the faulty generators, has paid Edison back $45.5 million in connection with a product warranty, according to the Orange County Register.
It's likely, however, that Mitsubishi and Edison will be engaged in further financial wrangling as events at the plant develop.
Also on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., sent an open letter to the chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission, calling for an investigation into whether Edison hid vital information about the installation of the steam generators from shareholders.
Markey teamed up with U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. earlier this month to reveal information from internal Edison documents, which prove Edison knowingly installed the faulty generators, they allege.
And the CPUC itself hasn't escaped recent public criticism: the California Legislative Analyst raised concerns about the agency's budgetary practices. Though only tangentially related to the oversight of San Onofre, the office raised concerns about how the CPUC is overseeing accounts of utilities like Edison, given they appear to be mismanaging hundreds of millions of ratepayer fees within their own agency, KPBS reported Friday.
The CPUC will hold another set of public input hearings in San Diego.