UPDATE 2-California utility may seek nuclear plant license change

Fri Mar 22, 2013 4:25pm EDT

LOS ANGELES, March 22 (Reuters) - Southern California Edison said on Friday it may seek changes to the operating license of its shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant as it looks for the quickest way to return the facility to service.

SCE has been trying to gain approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart San Onofre's damaged Unit 2 reactor in time to meet peak summer demand. But the NRC staff and SCE have disagreed on whether the utility's plan to operate the reactor at 70 percent power complies with its operating license.

The utility submitted an assessment to the U.S. nuclear watchdog last week that supports operation of the reactor at 100 percent power, but it said on Friday that it could take the NRC "substantial time" to review and accept that assessment. Therefore, it may undertake the license amendment simultaneously.

"We want to do every responsible thing we can do to get Unit 2 up and running safely before the summer heat hits our region," SCE President Ron Litzinger said in a statement.

Even if it secures the license amendment, the utility still has to undergo a separate safety review before it can be allowed to restart Unit 2.

SCE said it is requesting a meeting with the NRC to discuss the possible amendment. NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said the agency is looking at potential dates for the meeting, which would take place in Rockville, Maryland.

Both reactors at the 2,150-megawatt San Onofre nuclear station, owned by Edison and Sempra Energy, have been shut for more than a year following the discovery of damage to thousands of tightly packed tubes inside new steam generators.

Even though SCE plans to run the reactor at a reduced rate, the NRC staff has said the license requires that steam generator tubes be able to function safely "over the full range of normal operating conditions", including full power.

The unprecedented tube damage raised questions among elected officials and anti-nuclear groups about changes made to the design of the replacement generators, how they were manufactured and whether the plant can operate safely in the future.

Plant critics want the utility to undergo a license amendment process which includes public hearings and allows cross-examination of witnesses to understand whether the generator design and proposed restart plan comply with the unit's license.

But SCE said that if it pursues the amendment, it will seek a determination by the NRC that the amendment involves no significant safety risks. If it receives such a determination, the utility could avoid answering questions about the safety issues related to the steam generators' design changes.

Anti-nuclear group Friends of the Earth said in a statement that such an effort "would actually be an attempt to get around a rigorous license amendment proceeding with full examination of critical safety issues and public participation".

Loss of San Onofre's output has strained southern California's power grid, and state agencies are planning for a second summer without the plant.

SCE is a unit of Edison International.

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