Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif) wiped out in his remarks about the future of nuclear energy in his home state

Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif)
is an avid surfer

The perils of an incomplete technical briefing for an elected official were starkly apparent this week in California where a Los Angeles Congressman mixed up passive safety in GEN III+ LWRs with can't fail the fuel properties of 4th generation fast reactors. In swimming out to meet a traveling wave, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher appears to have slipped off the surfboard one too many times.

What the congressman said is that the NRC should deny issuing 20 year licenses to the two reactors when they come up for renewal in 2022. Plus, he calls for a national moratorium on construction of new light water reactors. He wants their replacements to be fast reactors that can burn spent nuclear fuel.

Rep. Rohrbacher's extended remarks to the Orange County Register got point-by-point dismissal from hot headed anti-nuclear groups who have the single-minded agenda of permanently shutting down the twin reactors at Southern California Edison's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

Here's what the OC Register reported May 3:

He said his call for new technology is not advocating a shutdown of any existing plants, just building no more of their type and replacing the energy they produce with new-generation plants that use spent fuel to power their reactors. At San Onofre, radioactive waste being stored could be put to use, he said.

"We could actually kill two birds with one stone if we go in this direction," the congressman said. "We can actually eliminate the waste problem that we face now. ... There is no reason why we should not be building a new type of reactor right here. The new reactors are so safe and so impossible to melt down or to have radioactivity escape that we can put them anywhere."

Ahead of his time or over his head?

Based on his remarks, it seems likely that Rohrbacker was briefed on either the GE PRISM reactor, which is, in turn, based on the Integral Fast Reactor, TerraPower's nicknamed traveling wave reactor, or a fast reactor design being developed by General Atomics which is located on San Diego.

Lots of people have the idea in mind of using spent fuel in fast reactors, but not in the time frame of just ten years from today. Even the Chinese government, which is placing multiple bets on various types of fast reactor technologies, doesn't see "burners" in widespread commercial use before 2040.

In the U.S., MIT's Ernie Moniz, who served on the Department of Energy's Blue Ribbon Commission, told Congress in 2011 that fast breeder reactors, which will make more fuel than they consume, are decades away as commercial offerings to utilities.

Lots of experts disagree with Moniz, on that point, but no one thinks that they'll be towering over the energy landscape like sunflowers in your garden and within the next decade.

The Department of Energy, which is offering $452 million in cost sharing funding for new small modular reactors, will most likely award it to one or two applicants with LWR technology. Indeed, the one SMR firm with plans for a 25 MW portable fast reactor design recently pulled out of the competition. TerraPower, which has 500-and-1000 MW designs concepts, has made no bones about its plans to go overseas to license its technology with partners for the first of a kind unit.

Rohrbacher said in his remarks that experts have told him fast burners could be built in the U.S. in as short a time as five years. Based on where the developers are going, that doesn't seem plausible or even that this is what they told him.

A few beers short of a six pack?

Rohrbacker's error isn't that he got the technology wrong. He got the time frame for bringing them to market condensed like it was the contents of a can of Campbells Soup. Even if he swam too far from shore to show off the marvels of futuristic fast reactors, he neglected to remind the reporter at the OC Register that the same anti-nuclear groups that want to close SONGS forever also want to keep California's now three decade old ban on building new nuclear reactors of any kind.

Now to his credit he does make what appears to be a good faith effort to endorse Gen III+ passive safety designs such as the AP1000 and the EPR, though he does not mention them by name. Had he stayed on that set of cue cards, he could have made some interesting and useful points.

For instance he could have talked about the passive safety features of the four Westinghouse AP1000s being built in China and another four under construction in the U.S. Not to leave Areva out of the picture, he could have also pointed out that two of its EPR reactors are under construction in China, one more in Finland, and a fourth in France. Two and as many as six EPRs are planned to be built in India. All of these are projects have completion dates this decade and not by 2040 or later.

Why sound off about new reactor technology?

For obvious political reasons, no one at SONGS is going to say something in public to correct his primary assertion that it is feasible to replace the current facility in a short period of time with new, passively safe reactors.

Like many elected officials, his view is that if you snap your fingers, metaphorically speaking, it is a case of just add water and microwave, and like instant oatmeal, ta da, new reactors.  As this blog has noted many times, politicians are always more enthusiastic about new technologies than engineers.

Then there is the question of whether a correction would matter to Rohrabacher. His confused comments about SONGS and fast reactors are an obvious effort to position himself in the coming election to be as far away as possible from the current power crisis without coming out at an anti-nuclear critic.

It's another example of a politician wanting to have it both ways and putting his foot in the bucket as a result. He might just as well have promised to put his footprint on the moon next Tuesday.

Rohrabacher represents Los Angeles (46th CD) while Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), in who's district the SONGS reactors are located, represents the 49th CD (San Diego). Power from SONGS keeps air conditioning humming in Los Angeles so rolling brown outs this summer in that city, if the reactors remain shut down, could have potential splash effect on Rohrabacher, hence his statement to the press with fractured facts about nuclear reactors. Maybe last Thursday Rohrbacher should have gone surfing for real instead of hanging ten on what his staff turned up surfing the Internet.

Re-start in June?

Southern California Edison (SCE), which owns SONGS, told wire services May 2 it may have at least one of the shut down reactors back online by June. The reactors would operate at reduced power for three-to-five months and then be inspected for excessive wear on the steam generators.

SCE said it will submit a re-start plan to the NRC in mid-May The regulatory agency will evaluate it and decide whether the reactors are safe to start operations.

SCE CEO Ron Litziner told investors he thinks both units could be back online by the second week of June, but hedged saying those dates depend on the review by the NRC.

SCE CFO Jim Scilacci said at the same meeting repair costs for the shut down reactors could rise to $65 million and that the utility will seek to recover them from Mitsubishi which manufactured and installed the trouble prone steam generators.  He added that the firm has spent $30 million buying replacement power and will seek to pass these costs on to rate payers.

When both units are operating at full capacity they provide 2,200 MW of power to homes and businesses in Los Angeles and San Diego.