Judge: California utility held improper nuclear plant talks

Nuclear Power Update - Closing Nuclear Plants Creates Problems, Too

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge Wednesday ruled that Southern California Edison executives engaged in improper talks with California utility regulators related to the now-closed San Onofre nuclear power plant and the company could face millions of dollars in potential penalties.

The findings by California Public Utilities Commission Administrative Law Judge Melanie Darling come as the latest development tied to a long-running dispute over a nearly $5 billion settlement that divided costs from the defunct nuclear plant.

The judge concluded that SCE executives or attorneys engaged in 10 unreported, improper communications with one or more agency commissioners or their advisers between March 26, 2013, and June 17, 2014.

A commission statement said the company could face fines of up to $50,000 a day for each offense. Under an estimate from one party in the case, the total penalties could be in excess of $34 million, the statement said.

The ruling orders SCE to show why it should not be penalized for improper communications with the agency.

SCE said in a statement it will submit its position on possible sanctions by Aug. 20. The company added that many allegations about improper discussions were rejected in the ruling.

The company "strives to be conscientious and comply with the commission's rules," Pedro Pizarro, president of SCE, said in a statement. "Based on the information we had at the time, we did not believe these communications were reportable. We're disappointed that the ruling reaches a different conclusion."

The company has previously defended the 2014 financial deal, saying it is fair and was negotiated properly.

The commission last year approved a settlement under which consumers would pay $3.3 billion and shareholders would pay $1.4 billion of costs stemming from closing San Onofre, located between Los Angeles and San Diego.

SCE decided to close the plant in June 2013. But it hadn't produced electricity since January 2012, after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of extensive damage to tubing that carried radioactive water.

Earlier this year, the state Office of Ratepayer Advocates, an arm of the utilities commission, said Edison and minority owner San Diego Gas & Electric Co. should return at least $648 million to customers because of evidence of secret deal-making in the settlement.

The office said private conversations between the commission's then-President Michael Peevey and an SCE executive gave the company an unfair advantage in negotiations over how to divide costs from the nuclear plant.

However, the office's proposal did not call for voiding the 2014 deal. The judge's ruling also leaves the settlement intact.

"Today's ruling does not alter the settlement," Pizarro said. "SCE continues to believe that the settlement was properly negotiated and approved, and that it should continue to remain in effect."

Other critics have argued the settlement shortchanged ratepayers.

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