While commissioners grimaced in response to vitriolic rhetoric, about 100 people argued over whether sticking consumers with an ongoing $3.3 billion tab for post-shutdown expenses at the San Onofre nuclear plant is acceptable or not. They came June 16 to a California Public Utilities Commission meeting 16 in Costa Mesa called to discuss a proposed settlement agreement for the plant. Under the complicated deal, ratepayers would have to cover $3.3 billion for expenses at the closed down plant, but they\u2019d also get a refund of $1.4 billion they\u2019ve already paid to the utilities that own the plant, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. At first blush the dispute over whether the settlement is fair struck me as a predictable and mundane argument about money. As I listened more closely during the two-hour meeting, I realized that underlying it are opposing ideas about what regulators should seek in overseeing giant monopolies to protect consumers: a deal or accountability when something goes wrong. Which view the commission embraces will become evident soon. Within the next two months, state regulators are to decide the fate of the proposed settlement. If approved as written, allowing the utilities to recover the $3.3 billion in expenses would add 1 percent to the average residential ratepayer\u2019s electric bill through 2022, according to Russ Worden, Edison case manager. More importantly, though, it would foreclose any further commission investigation of what went wrong at San Onofre. That\u2019s good enough, say supporters of the deal, which include the utilities, some consumer advocates, and some environmental and business groups\u2014many of them experienced hands at the commission. The Utility Reform Network executive director Mark Toney best summed up the side held by seasoned intervenors at the commission. \u201cIt\u2019s better to take the money now instead of rolling the dice and betting the [commission] will make a better decision,\u201d said Toney. He explained that based on the organization\u2019s long experience in consumer advocacy, the settlement represents the best deal possible. Yet, his conclusion stuck in the craw of opponents, including the Sierra Club and a number of nuclear watchdog and grassroots groups. San Clemente resident Patty Davis, who lives near the plant, was typical. She said Toney\u2019s assessment shows there \u201cis a very low bar for ethical decision making\u201d at the commission. Opponents, like her, believe utility regulation involves more than the art of the deal. They expect justice and accountability. Requiring a bigger refund is just a lever to achieve those ends. They contend that behind the plant\u2019s closure after new steam generators began leaking radioactivity\u2014which could have proven catastrophic\u2014stands either intentional circumvention of federal safety standards by Edison managers or incompetence at best. Meanwhile, proponents of the settlement see the refund as a clear victory for consumers. \u201cIt would be the largest disallowance for a utility in California that I am aware of,\u201d said Office of Ratepayer Advocates program manager Mark Pocta. A disallowance is when the commission orders a utility to return money to ratepayers after finding it was collected for an unreasonable expense, in this case a shutdown power plant that produced no power. In their thirst for accountability, opponents of the proposed settlement want the commission to investigate the decision-making behind the closure, plus require a bigger refund to force the nuclear plant\u2019s owners to cut shareholder dividends. Here\u2019s their logic. They believe more money for ratepayers would create shareholder pressure on the company\u2019s board of directors to clean house. Nothing short of this, they maintain, can bring accountability and justice. However, getting more for ratepayers would require the commission to delve deeper into what happened instead of closing the book on the matter, as would be required under the settlement as proposed. That\u2019s why electrical engineer Ray Lutz, Citizen\u2019s Oversight executive director, says that approving the proposed settlement would amount to a \u201c$3.3 billion cover up.\u201d He has a point. Without fully airing what happened it\u2019s hard to have confidence in the settlement. Adding further grounds for doubt is that Lutz contends the settlement was worked out, at least initially, in secret meetings, rather than through an open process. Attorney Mike Aguirre, representing settlement opponents, said the deal overlooks that Edison circumvented a licensing amendment process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission required when reactor components, like steam generators, are replaced with new components that are different than the originals. What\u2019s known is that Edison decided to order steam generators with more tubes than the originals in order to marginally improve power production. However, that resulted in the tubes being so close together that when they vibrated under heavy pressure they rubbed against each other. That eroded the metal and caused radioactive steam to leak. In installing the steam generators with a new design, Edison evidently convinced the federal nuclear agency that the scrutiny of a license amendment was unnecessary. Moreover, after the tubes failed, the utility tried to restart one of the plant\u2019s two impaired units as a trial run. Settlement opponents believe that posed a safety hazard to millions of Californians who live near the plant. Aguirre compared the company\u2019s behavior to driving a car without getting a license and having an accident. When that happens, he noted, the unlicensed driver is liable for the damage. Yet, Edison appears to be facing no repercussions, he said, because the state commission isn\u2019t doing its job. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Senate Environment & Public Works Committee chair, has been pressing the federal commission to reveal documents related to the steam generator replacement. She\u2019s interested in why a licensing amendment wasn\u2019t required, but she\u2019s been stonewalled. Meanwhile, with state regulators seemingly poised to approve the settlement, the Sierra Club, nuclear safety groups, and others fear that any hope for accountability and justice is about to slip away. About the only hope left for them is that the commission, in approving the settlement, won\u2019t agree to drop further investigation, but instead will fully investigate the plant\u2019s closure. That appears to be about the only course to increase public confidence in the commission\u2019s oversight of ongoing expenses at the closed down nuclear plant.