LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal panel sided Monday with environmentalists who have called for lengthy hearings on a plan to restart the ailing San Onofre nuclear power plant — a decision that further clouds the future of the twin reactors.
The plant between San Diego and Los Angeles hasn't produced electricity since January 2012, after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of unusual damage to hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water.
Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group critical of the nuclear power industry, argued that the federal process set up to consider a restart of the plant's Unit 2 reactor was in fact a change to the plant's operating license that would require a court-like hearing.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board agreed.
The three-member board concluded that the restart would allow operator Southern California Edison "to operate beyond the scope of its existing license."
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California praised the board's move, saying in a written statement that it was a "sound ruling setting a legal framework for a full public hearing before any final decision on the restart of the San Onofre nuclear power plant is made."
"It is a comfort to me that the safety board stood up for what is right," Boxer said.
There was disagreement, however, over the reach of the ruling, which came amid a series of complex investigations at the plant. The NRC has been considering whether to allow the Unit 2 reactor to restart and run at reduced power, which Edison engineers believe will stop vibration that damaged tubing.
Friends of the Earth spokesman Damon Moglen said in a statement that the ruling is "a complete rejection of Edison's plan to restart its damaged nuclear reactors."
The group said the reactors cannot be restarted until NRC "holds a formal license amendment proceeding with full public participation."
But a statement issued by the NRC characterized the ruling as a partial win for the environmental group.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the board found the group hadn't provided enough information for the three-member panel to consider initiating a lengthy hearing and, accordingly, concluded the case.
"They didn't give enough meat for the board to chew on," Burnell said. "At the same time the board says, 'Yes, there should be a hearing,' ... they said the hearing is terminated."
Burnell said a separate proceeding conducted by NRC staff reviewing the restart plan will continue.
The ruling can be appealed.
Edison had no immediate comment.
Edison wants to run the Unit 2 reactor at no more than 70 percent power for five months, which it projects will stop damage to tubing in its steam generators. However, the board's ruling called the plan an "experiment."