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Ace Hoffman Is Tilting at 'Nofre

The anti-nuke activist has spent years fighting the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Now, the impossible is on his horizon: its permanent shutdown

SONGS squanders heat on an unimaginable scale, dissipating enough into the sky above the plant each day to warm a city for a year. A 1994 Friends of the Earth study showed that a nuke plant must operate for 18 years before realizing 1 net calorie of energy. The nuke never pays off.

'Nofre lays its worst punishments on the ocean. To cool the reactors, it sucks in 2 million gallons of ocean water every minute, 1.6 billion gallons each day—an intake equal to a lake-sized square mile of ocean 12 feet deep. This prodigious misuse of water devastates local sea life. The Sierra Club calls SONGS and its sister California nuke plant Diablo Canyon "Giant Fish Blenders." At San Onofre each year, 121 tons of midwater fish are entrained (sucked into the cooling system itself). Unit 3 alone annually entrains an average of more than 3.1 billion individual aquatic organisms.

SONGS is a major polluter. "The Radioactive Effluent and Environmental Reports for San Onofre Units 2 and 3, 2005-2011" reveals in-depth details about the plant's impact on the environment. It has state and federal permission to release its "radwaste" into the air and water. In 2010, Edison piped highly diluted radwaste into the ocean for 550 hours (while releasing numerous low-level radionuclides into the air for a total of 44 hours). Edison's documents provided to the NRC reveal that SONGS released 34 different radionuclides, including plutonium, strontium-90 and cesium-137, all extremely injurious to living tissue.

The old man and the sea
Brendan Klein
The old man and the sea
Ace Hoffman at rest
Brendan Klein
Ace Hoffman at rest

Then there are "accidents." In 2006, tritium reportedly leaked into the groundwater beneath San Onofre, prompting the temporary closure of one area drinking-water well.

And SONGS isn't such a great place to work. On March 2, 2010, the NRC sent SONGS managers a letter describing a "chilling effect" among plant employees who feared retaliation from management if they reported safety concerns.

San Onofre has a filthy physical environment, "full of dirt, trash, clutter, cigarette butts and unidentified tripping hazards," according to Bethann Chambers, wife of SONGS whistleblower James Chambers, who worked at Units 2 and 3. "The (work) culture at SONGS is sick," she wrote on Dec. 9, 2010, in a long online post titled "The Truth About San Onofre From the Wife of a Licensed Nuclear Reactor Operator."

"This is the best word to describe the toxic work environment at the plant," added Chambers, who characterized the SONGS workforce as "three-tiered"—a management "Good Old Boys Club" (because it includes very few women) at the top, a second tier of "Company Stooges" and a bottom tier of "Worker Bees."

The result, according to Chambers: "If the workers at the nuclear-power plant are afraid to raise concerns, then the health and safety of the public is in jeopardy."

In addition to the shutdown, 2012 brought SONGS more drama than a Kardashian-Olsen twins cage match. In January, an outside contractor who was leaning over to retrieve a flashlight while working near Unit 2's reactor pool lost his balance and fell in. He survived. In May, Edison revealed a case of flawed safety equipment and lax oversight regarding the reactors' emergency-backup generators. The next month, a routine NRC inspection of SONGS found "security deficiencies." In December, fearing possible "employee-related sabotage," SONGS officials began investigating why they found coolant mixed with oil in their safety equipment.

Imagine a delinquent 8-year-old behind the wheel of the 700 mph turbojet-propelled Fossett LSR hypercar packed tight with nuclear explosives, trying to set a world land-speed record, 24/7 for eternity. That's SONGS.

But none of the above forced the current shutdown. Dumb, doomed, double-domed SONGS has been closed for a year thanks to that " leaking incident," which involved heat-transfer tubes in the plant's Unit 3 nuclear-reactor steam generators. These convert heat from the reactor cores into steam to drive turbines and generate electricity. Tubes in a year-old, poorly designed, 65-foot tall, 640-ton steam generator ruptured.

SCE downplayed the shutdown "incident" in a June 7 press release last year. "Both SONGS units are currently safely shut down for inspections, analysis and testing. Unit 2 was taken out of service Jan. 9 for a planned outage. Unit 3 was safely taken offline Jan. 31 after station operators detected a leak in a steam-generator tube."

What actually took place was that several heat-transfer tubes, severely damaged by extended heavy vibration and denting, burst and vented hundreds of gallons of super-heated, highly pressurized, radioactive steam. Alarms sounded, and operators scrambled far into the next day before finally doing a "cold" shutdown of the entire system. They had to evacuate the turbine plant and surrounding areas and declare an "Alert" ("an event that could decrease the plant's level of safety," in SONGSspeak).

"Edison played fast and loose by making radical design changes and ducking the rules," said Kendra Ulrich, nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth. "The result was the most rapid breakdown of such replacement steam generators in the history of the U.S. nuclear industry. If Edison had followed the rules, an NRC license review would have found these glaring defects, and the lives of millions of people would not have been put at risk, nor would hundreds of millions of dollars have been squandered."

Edison sees things differently. In June 2012, SCE executives claimed that the cause of what they call the "unexpected" tube-to-tube wear was "fluid elastic instability" or excessive tube vibration. That's like saying a decked prizefighter got knocked out by the canvas when his head hit it.

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