IRVINE, Calif. (AP) -- The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday opened an investigation into the damaged San Onofre nuclear power plant to determine whether ratepayers should bear costs tied to the facility that has been shut down most of the year.
The five-member commission voted unanimously to start a probe into whether ratepayers should be refunded for these costs and the cost-effectiveness of repairing or replacing one or both of the two units at the plant.
The vote came after dozens of residents and business leaders pleaded with the state utilities regulator against — and for — a plan to restart the plant, which hasn't produced power since January due to crippled steam generators.
"We will investigate the causes of the outages, the responsibility of the operator and the future of the plant thoroughly and carefully," Commissioner Mark J. Ferron told the several hundred people who attended the meeting in Irvine.
Edison International's Southern California Edison, which owns 78 percent of the plant, said in a statement that the company will look to warranties and insurance to recover costs associated with the outages. Last year, the company estimated it would cost roughly $640 million to run the plant in 2012, said company spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre.
The plant is also owned by Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric and the city of Riverside.
At this point, it is not clear when, or if, the reactors will return to service.
Critics of nuclear power who want the plant permanently shut down pleaded with commissioners to refund ratepayers and shift the cost burden to the utility owner's shareholders to get the company to make more sound decisions about safety and future investments in the site.
"We are feeling powerless about what is going on with our power company," Laguna Beach City Councilwoman Toni Iseman said. "If they are reimbursed for this period of time, it will only encourage them to continue with what they're doing."
But a number of Southern California business leaders warned the commission — which determines how much utilities can charge homeowners and businesses for electricity — that power outages triggered by insufficient sources of energy could have a devastating effect on the Southern California economy.
"We have major concerns, our members, on what the rate costs will do if San Onofre goes offline," said Weston LaBar, a consultant to the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "We really want you to take a look at what the impact could be to employers at a time when we really need to make sure jobs are preserved."
In California, utilities are required to report outages to the commission after nine months. In turn, the commission must open an investigation into whether a refund to ratepayers is warranted. The investigation could take up to 18 months.