Mike Aguirre Explains San Onofre Nuclear Plant Status and History

Mike Aguirre, former City Attorney for the City of San Diego from 2004 – 2008, spoke to our club at our August meeting. Attorney Aguirre graduated from Arizona State College in 1971, earning his JD from Boalt Hall, UC Berkley in 1974.  He is known as a champion of the people and rooting out injustice wherever it exists. He has fought the good fight for many causes, including stepping in to pick up the fight for the United Farm Workers when Cesar Chavez died during the trial. He won that suit on appeal.

Mike offered a brief resume and remembered how he had been called a subversive during the turbulent 60’s when he was at Berkley, protesting the Vietnam War. He explained the difference.  A protestor is a citizen taking a stand against a policy considered unjust while subversives are people who don’t accept the outcome of an election and set about undermining the results with propaganda to change that outcome to their liking. A Democrat all his life, Mike stated we are the conscience of the Nation. We are not blameless but overall, as a party we try to do what’s right for the majority. “We’re the good guys”, but even as “good guys” our leaders are beholden to Wall Street and the really big money. 

He recalled how in 1936 President Roosevelt accepted the nomination for a second term at the Democratic Convention, also held in Philadelphia, just as our most recent convention was held in the City of Brotherly Love. In Roosevelt’s time economic royalists were exploiting America and he went after them. Mike explained that the forces of greed and selfishness continue to descend on both parties today and we, as a Party, must root it out beginning with getting dark money out of our politics. While California Democrats enjoy a Supermajority, our leaders, too, are beholden to dark money. 

Turning to San Onofre, Aguirre referenced how many years have already passed (3) while the closed facility sits idle with no pressure to find solutions to the biggest problem: spent fuel rods. 3 million pounds of toxic waste are being allowed to sit on our doorstep; our Democratic leaders have shown no urgency to deal with this issue.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) was built in the 1960’s. The plant operated its first unit from 1968 – 1992. Built by Westinghouse, the pressurized water reactor lasted 25 years. Unit 2 began operating in 1983, and Unit 3 began in 1984. They were intended to last 40 years. But an upgrade design for steam generators by Mitsubishi was thought to have the ability to generate almost 3 times more energy and still last 20 more years. Moreover the upgrade was projected to save consumers $1 billion over time. It became a 10 year project that ended up costing $671 million which SCE (Southern California Edison) passed on to its customers. Yet, in 2012, both Units 2 & 3 Nuclear reactors were shut down due to premature wear on over 3,000 tubes in these replacement steam generators. These steam generators failed after only 11 months.

The CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission), with close ties to SCE and Wall Street (where SCE’s Parent Company, Edison International, is traded on the stock market with enormous profits), stonewalled “searching for answers”  with  Democrats stalling to keep an investigation at bay. It was too complex an issue to rush. Few people would understand the scientific terminology. When withholding information was finally made public and facts brought to trial, PG&E was convicted of 7 felony counts. In June, 2013, SCE announced it would permanently close down San Onofre.

In 2014, SCE further announced it would be auctioning off non-radioactive equipment and that decommissioning the plant would take 20 years. They further announced that the toxic spent fuel rods would be kept on site in dry casks indefinitely…within 1,000 feet of our ocean. It will take 10,000 years for this toxic waste to neutralize. With rising sea levels due to climate change, what could possibly go wrong?  And if the rods were to be moved where would they go and who should be expected to pay for their removal? Subversives remain out there, alive and well. 

In 2014, Aguirre represented Ruth Hendricks, challenging the $4.7 billion settlement deal for the failed nuclear plant of which ratepayers were being asked to foot $3.3 billion. His questions about the settlement terms with ratepayers were angrily brushed aside during the settlement approval process. By 2015 however, his questions about backchannel dealings between regulators and utility companies, originally uncovered by reporters, were being taken more seriously as criminal investigators seized notes from a secret meeting in Poland where the framework of a San Onofre deal was first discussed. Ultimately it was ruled that these indeed were illegal secret dealings and this past May Edison was fined $16.7 million.

So where do things stand now? The toxic rods will remain, but the terms of the original settlement could change as investigations continue and the potential for re-opening the settlement remains.

More importantly, this past June Gov. Brown and Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) and Senators Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) and Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) agreed to a sweeping set of reforms that would strip much of the CPUC’s powers and split them up among other state agencies. These major reforms just passed in the Senate this week and now await the Governor’s signature. Upon implementation, these reforms should improve transparency and accountability which has been sorely lacking to date.