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Voters To Voice Opinion On Fate Of California Nuclear Plant

June 2, 1989

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Voters who gave the troubled Rancho Seco nuclear plant a reprieve last year decide next week whether the utility passed its probation or should be shut down.

Critics of ″the ranch,″ fearful of nuclear accidents and angry at a $400 million repair cost and rising utility bills, want to close the 15-year-old plant permanently. But supporters say the plant’s bad days are over since it has gotten new management.

The managers of Rancho Seco acknowledge they face a difficult task in convincing the public the plant can operate safely and efficiently. ″The greatest challenge we face today is perception,″ says Joseph Firlit, chief executive officer at Rancho Seco.

Residents of Sacramento County and parts of neighboring Placer County will vote on the proposition Tuesday. Though the vote is not binding on the municipal utility that owns Rancho Seco, a majority of the utility’s elected board members have said they will follow the will of the people.

The nuclear industry, fearful that closing one of the few publicly owned plants in the nation could strengthen the hand of critics of privately owned plants elsewhere, have raised $580,000 to push for its continued operation. Oppoenents have raised $111,000, according to the latest campaign reports.

Critics dismiss arguments that the plant has been transformed since the 1985 overcooling accident that caused a 27-month outage. ″We’ve spent enough on Rancho Seco, and we’ve given it its chance,″ says Peter Keat, one of the municipal utility board members who favors the shutdown.

Since its restart in April 1988, the plant has again been nagged by a series of mechanical problems that has shut it down or forced cutbacks in power production. Overall since restart, the plant has run at about 47 percent of its operating capacity.

Last June, shortly after the restart, voters narrowly granted the plant a probationary period, allowing it to operate pending another vote this year.

Continuing problems show the plant has flunked probation, say representatives of Campaign California, an environmental group formed by Assemblyman Tom Hayden and his wife, Jane Fonda, that has pushed for the plant’s closing.

Plant spokesmen Kerry Shearer, however, says the plant has won praise from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for improvements since the accident and that the restart last year was one of the smoothest in the nuclear industry.

Supporters also point to an offer from two companies involved with creating Rancho Seco. Bechtel Power Corp. and Babcock & Wilcox are seeking a contract from the municipal utility district under which they would share in management responsibilities and risk losing part of their fees if the plant runs poorly. The campaign, at times, has strayed from the issues to items such as the driving records of workers for the campaign to keep Rancho Seco open and Hayden’s protest against the Vietnam War 20 years ago.

A poll, commissioned by The Sacramento Bee late last month, indicated that 46.2 percent favored closing the plant, 36.5 percent favored keeping it open, and 17.4 percent hadn’t formed an opinion.

The overcooling accident in December 1985 was the most serious of the many problems that have plagued the 913-megawatt plant since it was built at a cost of about $375 million. It opened in 1974.

The plant’s control room was rattled by a chorus of alarms as operators futilely fought to halt a rapid temperature drop in the nuclear reactor vessel.

Federal investigators said a power outage to control room instruments and employee errors allowed the steel vessel to cool 180 degrees in 24 minutes - well beyond the 100-degrees-per-hour limit designed to prevent cracking of the vessel and a leak of cooling water that could trigger a reactor meltdown.

The vessel did not crack, but two workers were exposed to a low level of radiation and the plant vented a small amount of radioactive steam into the air. The plant got new managers and stayed shut for more than two years until the utility convinced the NRC that it had sufficiently upgraded safety and employee training.

But critics of Rancho Seco, calling it a costly and dangerous liability, gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the local June 1988 ballot to permanently shut the plant, which was narrowly defeated.

An alternate measure was put on the ballot by the utility’s governing board, calling for the probation period instead of an outright shutdown. That measure narrowly passed, leading to the vote next week.

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